The 2015 Hockey East Tournament at the TD Garden this weekend takes on an added significance for all four teams competing, but for different reasons.
In most years, at least a few teams to make the semifinals are already guaranteed or very close to punching a ticket to the NCAA Tournament. This year, Boston University is the only team to enter Friday's games inside the top 16 of the all-important Pairwise Rankings.
UMass Lowell is the closest of the rest, sitting precariously in the No. 17 spot of the Pairwise. The River Hawks will likely have to win Friday night to keep Norm Bazin's streak of three straight NCAA Tournament appearances alive.
Vermont is No. 19 in the Pairwise and will almost certainly have to win the Hockey East Tournament to receive the conference's automatic bid to the national tournament. At No. 27 in the Pairwise, there is no doubt New Hampshire will have to win twice this weekend to continue its season.
While UMass Lowell, Vermont and New Hampshire look to grind it out for a NCAA bid, the Terriers have higher aspirations. Led by Jack Eichel and a young defense, BU has been a force nationally all season and has set its mind on a national championship inside the TD Garden come the second weekend of April.
Of the eight national championships won by Hockey East schools since the league's inception, only the 1999 Maine team has ever won an NCAA Championship without also winning the conference tournament crown.
The semifinals kick off Friday evening with UMass Lowell squaring off with Vermont at 5 p.m. Boston University and New Hampshire battle in the nightcap, slated to begin at approximately 8 p.m.
Semifinal #1: UMass Lowell vs. Vermont
These two teams met on the final weekend of the regular season with the River Hawks emerging with three of the four possible points. Both teams certainly know how to pack it in low and defend their own cage.
Vermont, the No. 7 seed, unexpectedly made it to the semifinals after upsetting Boston College in three games. The Catamounts surrendered four girls in the first 24:08 of the series, but held the Eagles to just one in the final 155:52 as they rallied for the two-games-to-one series victory.
Brody Hoffman came on in relief after Michael Santaguida gave up the four goals in the first game and never looked back. The Wilkie, Saskatchewan native stopped 39 shots in game two's 3-1 win and kicked aside 36 in a 1-0 shutout win in the decisive game three.
Hockey East's top defensive defenseman Michael Paliotta was particularly solid in the BC series. He's not the fastest and most mobile defender, but he does a real good job of gap control and keeping opposing forwards to the perimeter. He's one of the best blue liners in the country in terms of owning the middle of the ice.
Star forward Mario Puskarich was listed as week-to-week by Kevin Sneddon during the BC series, meaning he could be back, but it seems his prognosis wasn't optimistic. In his absence, Brady Shaw has really stepped up. The sophomore has five goals in six playoff games, bringing his season total to 19.
UMass Lowell is onto the semifinals after a 2-1 series victory over Notre Dame. The River Hawks won both games convincingly, sandwiching around a Notre Dame win.
The coach job done by Norm Bazin and his staff this year was nothing short of astonishing, considering all that was lost to graduation and early defections to the pro ranks. There is no better game manager in all of college hockey than Bazin, who is on the brink of leading his alma mater to four NCAA Tournament appearances in four seasons at the helm.
Freshman C.J. Smith leads the River Hawks in scoring with 16 goals and 19 assists, but he's part of a balanced attack that has many different contributors depending on what night it is.
When UMass Lowell is on its game, the team suffocates opponents with a fierce forecheck and a tenacious puck pursuit. Game one of UML's series with Notre Dame was a perfect example. UML made it difficult for the Irish to play their game, forechecking hard and being right on any ND who had the puck. It might be boring at times, but UML does a good job preventing other teams from getting into the scoring areas and possessing the puck.
Adam Chapie and Joe Gambardella are both players that really fit Bazin's game. They are fast, good forecheckers and opportunistic.
Michael Kapla and Dylan Zink lead the defense and pitch into the offense from the blue line. Kapla isn't as flashy as some of the league's top offensive defensemen, but he has exceptional vision and awareness of the ice.
While Kevin Boyle doesn't make it look pretty, he's generally gotten the job done this season, having to fill the large skates of Connor Hellebuyck and Doug Car. The junior will likely have to be on top of his game Friday in order to keep up with Hoffman at the other end.
Semifinal #2: Boston University vs. New Hampshire
New Hampshire was left for dead by many observers including this one after a dismal first half, but the Wildcats turned it around in the second semester. Sparked by a 4-3 upset win over BU, Dick Umile's team won eight in a row before Saturday's game two loss to Providence.
Senior Grayson Downing has come on strong in the second half after a mediocre first half. He brings a six-game goal scoring streak and eight-game point streak into Friday's game with BU.
Sophomore Tyler Kelleher is the team's leading scorer. The undersized forward is quick and shifty and makes some nifty plays with the puck.
Another major reason for UNH's late season resurgence has been the return to health of junior defenseman Brett Pesce, a Carolina Hurricanes prospect. He's not flashy, but he's very solid in all three zones. He makes a big difference in the breakout game as well as on the power play and in the defensive zone.
The overall development of the team, especially some of the younger players, has been a contributing factor to the team's second semester rise, but perhaps no player has had more of an impact than freshman goaltender Danny Tirone who joined the team in December.
The Loomis Chaffee alum is 14-5-0 as a starter with a 2.10 goals against average and a .925 save percentage. It wasn't as much that fellow rookie Adam Clark was doing a poor job in the first half. He wasn't, but Tirone has stolen games whereas Clark was doing just enough. Tirone had a .963 save percentage in the team's three games against Providence. His task Friday night will be a difficult one - containing Jack Eichel and company.
Boston University enters the weekend at No. 4 in the Pairwise and is the prohibitive favorite to walk away from the TD Garden with the Lamoriello Trophy on Saturday night. The Terriers swept the league's major regular season awards handed out at the Hockey East Banquet Thursday night.
Eichel, Evan Rodrigues and Danny O'Regan make up the most explosive line in all of college hockey. BU's secondary scoring is better than many team's top lines. The defensive unit is all adept at moving the puck and skating well.
BU was the only team to sweep in the quarterfinals and will be well-rested after two dominating wins over an over-matched Merrimack club. That rest was much needed for freshman defenseman and Tampa Bay Lightning prospect John MacLeod, who missed the past three games with an injury. He's expected to be back in the lineup Friday night.
There's nothing bold about these picks. Two-time defending champion UMass Lowell advances to a third straight final with a 3-2 win over UVM. BU skates past UNH, 4-3. In the championship game, the scarlet and white return to the championship ring with a 5-2 win over Lowell.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior, high school and prep hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.