With just two weekends left in the regular season and the top six teams separated by only two points, the Hockey East playoff race could not be more exciting. There are five series in the league this weekend. Let's take a look at some keys in each series.
1. Out of the top six teams, four play each other this weekend in home-and-home series. UMass-Lowell and Merrimack square off in a rivalry that goes back to the school's Division II days while Providence and Boston College renew acquaintances. Could freshman goalie Jon Gillies be the modern day version of Chris Terreri who led Providence to the first Hockey East Tournament title over BC back in 1985?
These games are so important because they could be four point swings within the cluster. UMass-Lowell and Providence come in as the hot teams while BC and Merrimack will be looking to shake off some disappointing outings of late.
Merrimack has struggled to score goals recently as their power play has been extremely ineffective. The Warriors have generated some chances five-on-five, but haven't been able to bury the chances. Mike Collins has been relatively quiet lately. He needs to get back on track and make a statement this weekend. Sam Marotta should bounce back from being pulled in the loss at BU.
UMass-Lowell is on fire after winning five in a row, including three in five days over BU and BC. The offense is starting to click. Joseph Pendenza, Scott Wilson, Riley Wetmore and Derek Arnold are playing their best hockey of the season. UML needs to get out to an early lead as Merrimack plays their best in close checking games. The Warriors struggle when having to come from behind.
The keys for Providence are quite simple. Jon Gillies needs to play his best between the pipes. The Calgary draft pick has been a difference maker this season, and he will need to be as sharp as ever this weekend. The other key is for the top line of Stefan Demopoulos, Tim Schaller and Mark Jankowski to come out flying and create some doubt in BC.
For BC, the Eagles will have to move on from losing Tuesday night's big home game to Lowell and losing junior forward Kevin Hayes for the season. There is still plenty of talent up front to challenge Gillies. However, depth is an increasing issue. Jerry York's squad could really benefit from getting out to a hot start, putting fear in a young PC team.
2. The other two teams in the top six, New Hampshire and Boston University, play teams lower in the standings. UMass-Amherst and University of Vermont visit Durham and Boston, respectively this weekend. The keys for these two top teams, UNH and BU, are quite simple. They need to take advantage of easier opponents at home as the other four in the top teams face each other.
BU has superior skill to a lot of teams in the league. They have struggled to live up to expectations for much of the second half. Jack Parker's team needs to use its offensive weapons in the top two lines to pound the UVM net. The Catamounts don't have the firepower to keep up. BU will look to leverage a positive performance against Merrimack to finish the regular season on a high note.
UNH was on fire for most of the first half. Sophomore goalie Casey DeSmith was nearly unbeatable. One of their few setbacks was an overtime loss at UMass. The Wildcats need to use these two home games to exact revenge on the Minutemen. UNH's defense, known more for its offensive and puck moving capabilities, needs to clamp down UMass' top line. If they can shutdown Michael Periera, Connor Sheary and Branden Gracel, it alleviates much of the UMass threat.
3. In the other series of the weekend, Northeastern travels to Orono to face Maine in a series that might be an elimination contest. The two teams currently sit in the last two spots in the league, meaning they would miss the league playoffs. Maine is within striking distance and could put the team in position to sneak into the playoffs with a good weekend. Northeastern needs a big weekend in Orono and help from others to be in good position.
The Huskies goaltending issues have been well documented. Maine's scoring ineptitude has also been well chronicled. The winner of this weekend's series will likely be the team that can overcome those deficiencies.
Maine has struggled on home ice this season, not winning a game at Alfond Arena until February. The Black Bears will look to send its senior class out on a high note. One key to doing so besides finding some offense will be to shut down Northeastern's freshman sensation Kevin Roy.
Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.