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Breaking down the Hockey East playoff race

Matt Nieto and his Boston University teammates came away with a big victory over Merrimack Tuesday night. Their playoff hopes are suddenly looking up with a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way.

Boston University junior forward and San Jose draft pick Matt Nieto
Boston University junior forward and San Jose draft pick Matt Nieto

With Tuesday's results in the books, there is now a four-way tie for first place in Hockey East. Boston College, New Hampshire, Providence and UMass-Lowell all have 28 points. Merrimack is one point behind at 27 and BU is one behind Merrimack at 26. Each league team has four games remaining.

UNH and BU certainly have the easiest schedules remaining. The Wildcats play host to UMass-Amherst and Maine, the 8th and 9th place teams respectively. BU hosts Vermont, the 7th place team, for a pair and then has a home-and-home with last place Northeastern. So not only do both UNH and BU have the easiest opponents, UNH plays all four games at home and BU has three of four at home.

Providence and Lowell have the toughest schedules out of the top six teams. The Friars have a home-and-home series with Boston College this weekend before finishing the year with a home-and-home against Lowell. The River Hawks have a home-and-home series with Merrimack this weekend.

This weekend in Orono is do-or-die time for both Maine and Northeastern. The two teams are in the dreaded 9th and 10th spots currently, meaning they'd miss the playoffs if the post-season started today. Luckily for Maine, if they take care of business at home against NU, there could be hope. The two teams above them, UVM and UMass, both have brutal schedules the rest of the way.

One thing is for certain with the logjam at the top. There will be a huge difference being the first or second seed versus being the third or fourth seed. The top two teams will play teams that on paper should be significantly easier opponents.

As far as the national picture is concerned, New Hampshire, BC and UMass-Lowell are all in the top 10 of the Pairwise Rankings. BU is back on the bubble thanks to its victory over Merrimack. The Terriers currently sit at 18th. It's looking like Merrimack or Providence will have to win the Hockey East tournament to make the NCAA Tournament.

Here's a look at the current Hockey East standings, with remaining opponents and strength of schedule, as well.

Team Points Remaining Opponents SOS * SOS Rank
Boston College 28 Providence, Vermont 23.50 5th
New Hampshire 28 UMass-Amherst, Maine 16.50 9th
Providence 28 Boston College, UMass-Lowell 28.00 1st
UMass-Lowell 28 Merrimack, Providence 27.50 T-2nd
Merrimack 27 UMass-Lowell, UMass-Amherst 22.50 6th
Boston University 26 Vermont, Northeastern 16.00 10th
Vermont 19 Boston University, Boston College 27.00 4th
UMass-Amherst 17 New Hampshire, Merrimack 27.50 T-2nd
Maine 16 Northeastern, New Hampshire 20.50 8th
Northeastern 13 Maine, Boston University 21.00 7th

* Strength of schedule is determined by adding up the points of remaining opponents and dividing by four (amount of games left). The most difficult schedule is ranked 1st. The least difficult is ranked 10th.

Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.