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Hockey East Playoffs: First Round Preview

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The beginning of the Hockey East Playoffs represents a chance for a new beginning and a clean slate for the teams in the opening round that begins Thursday night at Merrimack.

That was the common theme, especially among the coaches of teams hitting the road for the first round. "The playoffs are always the ultimate reset button," commented Massachusetts head coach John Micheletto.

History will be made this weekend as the University of Connecticut hosts a home playoff series for the first time in Hockey East in just the program's second year in the conference. Merrimack is hosting for just the third time in its time in Hockey East, the last coming in 2011. Both the Warriors and Huskies jumped Vermont and UNH on the final weekend of the regular season with sweeps.

The four winners of the opening round match-ups will advance and be re-seeded before facing one of the top four teams in the quarterfinals next weekend.

No. 12 Massachusetts at No. 5 Boston University

The Terriers had a chance to secure a bye heading into the final night of the regular season, but a loss at Notre Dame coupled with a UMass Lowell win over Boston College meant no off-week.

"We're disappointed we don't have a bye, but our guys are excited to play this weekend. It's the best time of year," said BU coach David Quinn.

Boston University won both regular season meetings in convincing fashion, 7-2 at Agganis Arena and 6-3 at the Mullins Center. The results were a microcosm of how the second half of the season went for the Minutemen, who were outscored 65-19 in 12 second half league games.

"It's been an interesting year. We had a good start. There's no question we've hit a bad stretch of injuries," said Micheletto. Defensemen William Lagesson, Marc Hetnik, Carmine Buono, Callum Fryer and Maddison Smiley all missed games in the second half due to injury.

On the other hand, the Terriers are fairly set for the series with the exception of Nick Olsson, who is lost for the season. "We're probably as healthy as we can be this time of year. Nick Olsson is out for the year, but everyone else is ready to go. We survived the weekend from a health standpoint," said Quinn.

BU has the obvious advantage in every category and is the more skilled team. The Terriers are a young team age-wise, but have three seniors who are leading the team in scoring and a second-year senior captain in Matt Grzelcyk. That certainly bodes well come playoff time.

"It's a very close team off the ice. The older players have embraced our younger players. We've handled some adversity well. We've been a strong third period team. We've played in some playoff type situations," said Quinn.

BU scored four goals in the first period in the final regular season meeting between the teams in Amherst and hopes to get off to a fast start this weekend.

"We've got to set the tone and the pace. No matter who you play that's what you have to do. You want to be the aggressor. It's tough to turn a switch on and off," Quinn explained.

It's no secret that BU has the skating and puck skills on the blue line to push the pace in transition and control possession. Freshman Charlie McAvoy is one of the most skilled defensemen in college hockey. His poise and confidence with the puck is sensational. Since the Quinnipiac game on Dec. 12, McAvoy's +16 plus/minus is better than any other Terrier.

"It's about making them play a 200 foot game. You want to make them earn ice and not feed into transition," said Micheletto.

BU holds a serious edge in the goaltending department as well. Terrier goaltenders Sean Maguire and Connor LaCouvee have combined for a .915 save percentage while Minutemen goaltenders are at .884.

PICK: This series won't even be close. Blame injuries or other factors, but it appears UMass players have folded. It could get real ugly. BU wins, 6-1 and 7-2.

No. 9 Vermont at No. 8 Connecticut

Thanks to an exhilarating comeback from a 4-1 deficit and eventual 5-4 overtime victory, Connecticut earned home ice in the first round of the Hockey East Playoffs in just its second season in the league. The Huskies swept UNH on the final weekend of the season and benefited from a Merrimack sweep of Vermont.

"It was a great step for our program. We're certainly excited with the way the season finished for us," said UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh. "It was a great weekend that culminated with a comeback Saturday night. It's the first time the XL Center will hold a college hockey playoff. We're happy to be playing in front of our home fans this weekend."

"[Cavanaugh] has done a great job in a short time. Every game we've played against them the past two years has had a playoff atmosphere. We expect the same this weekend," UVM coach Kevin Sneddon complimented.

It sets up a match-up with the Catamounts at the XL Center in Hartford, where UConn has received great support the past two seasons. Despite UVM's struggles of late, Sneddon's team poses a serious threat to pull the road upset.

The Catamounts swept the regular season series between the two teams, winning 2-1 in Burlington in November and 4-2 at UConn in January. Sneddon's group is also no stranger to post-season success, having upset BC in a best-of-three series last March and advancing to the NCAA Tournament in 2014.

"I like our team. It's battle tested. We played against the top teams in Hockey East and the entire NCAA," said Sneddon, whose team played five games against Minnesota, North Dakota and Omaha to begin the season.

Vermont's 1-6-1 finish can be mainly attributed to an inability to find the back of the net. In the win and tie, UVM scored five goals. In the six losses, the Catamounts scored just five times, including a shutout against Merrimack on the final night of the regular season. Junior Brady Shaw, who scored 19 goals a year ago, has just four this season.

"We've had trouble scoring. We're working our tails off, but we haven't had consistency scoring. We're fighting for the consistency and confidence offensively. We need to manufacture offense," Sneddon remarked.

UConn enters the series with some reinvigorated confidence after lighting the lamp nine times last weekend. Seven different Huskies scored last weekend with Corey Ronan and Joey Ferriss each potting two. Freshmen Max Letunov and Tage Thompson have been the offensive catalysts all season long, tallying 29 of the team's 84 goals. In a rarity for rookies in the league, the duo have not appeared to hit a wall, and in fact have gotten better as the year has gone along.

"Max has scored in 27 of our 37, 21 of last 23. He's been consistent all season. His defense has gotten better all season. Tage has really matured as a hockey player. He's become more physical. He's stronger on the puck. He has a great shot. He leads the country in power play goals," Cavanaugh boasted.

Both teams lost their starting goaltender for a portion of the second half. UVM junior Mike Santaguida made his first start in nearly three months last Saturday at Merrimack. He played well and didn't appear to be rusty.

"Our goaltenders have been consistent," Sneddon said referring to Santaguida and Packy Munson who filled in admirably. "Our team sacrifices and does what it needs to defensively."

UConn junior Rob Nichols missed six starts in January and February, but started the last six games. He's proven that he can steal a game against any team in the country over the past two seasons.

The only big question surrounding an injury is with UConn sophomore defenseman David Drake who missed the final 10 games of the regular season. Arguably the Huskies' best defender, he is questionable to return this weekend from a broken hand.

PICK: Three of the four teams the two teams have played over the past two seasons have been 2-1 finals. Expect much of the same this weekend. The safe bet is on the Huskies pulling out the series in three games.

No. 11 Maine at No. 6 Northeastern

The Huskies and Black Bears couldn't be entering this weekend's series any further apart. Northeastern has lost just once since starting a 14-1-2 stretch with a win over Michigan State. Head coach Jim Madigan credited a trip across the pond to play in the Friendship Four in Belfast, Northern Ireland with the turnaround from a dreadfully bad start.

"A turning point was our trip to Northern Ireland. We knew we had to play without two of our key offensive players [Kevin Roy and Dalen Hedges]. Our kids started to believe and confidence was picking up."

Prior to the Thanksgiving weekend trip to Belfast, Northeastern was 1-10-2 and had been winless in 12 straight after an opening night win over Colgate. "Much of it could be traced back to not defending well in our own zone and not scoring a lot of goals. We lost a couple of key players during that period. We were lacking confidence," said Madigan.

Losers of seven of eight, Maine is hoping a fresh start will be just what the doctor ordered. "We're not satisfied with how many wins we've earned, but at the same time, it's a new season," said Maine coach Red Gendron.

In an interesting twist to this series, the two teams met just last weekend at Matthews Arena. Northeastern swept the series with 5-3 and 7-1 wins.

"They're a very good team. They beat us twice down there last weekend," Gendron said who believes familiarity could breed success. "We know the rink. We know the routines around the rink. We're pretty familiar with everything. There aren't any secrets."

"We expect another hard fought series. They play hard. They finish every check. They're heavy on pucks and drive the net. You have to win puck battles," said Madigan.

Despite a disappointing season for Maine standards, Gendron was rewarded with a contract extension last month. The Black Bears have played hard and fought to stay in a lot of games, including a 3-3 tie with Quinnipiac and a heartbreaking 1-0 loss in overtime against Providence.

"We played well in a lot of games. We know we're capable of winning against good teams. We've been resilient," said Gendron.

Gendron wouldn't comment on the availability of leading goal scorer Will Merchant, who missed last Saturday's game. The Eagan, Minn. native lit the lamp 13 times this season after scoring just nine times in his first three years in Orono after coming straight from Eagan High School.

"He's had a very nice senior season. He's a player that's developed himself and saved his best hockey for last. He was a true freshman. That can be difficult to transition from high school hockey directly to Hockey East. He's been an important part of our team and he's been a leader on our team," Gendron said.

Northeastern needed players to step up and take on a bigger role with the prolonged absences of Roy and Hedges. Enter the newly minted first line of John Stevens centering younger brother Nolan Stevens and Zach Aston-Reese. The trio has accounted for 36 of the 108 goals scored by the Huskies this season.

"That whole line has been the key. When we put them together, they could shoulder the offensive burden. They're all heavy on pucks. They're not a finesse line. They're a power line. They have such great details and habits to their game. They're really good down low and with puck possession," Madigan explained.

Despite the similarities, the three players each bring something unique to the line which is what makes it so effective.

"Zach thinks the game the right way. John distributes it real well and Zach and Nolan both can really shoot it," said Madigan, who emphasized the pedigree of all three players.

The younger Stevens has made the biggest jump after coming to NU as a true freshman from the US NTDP. He scored just 12 points as a rookie before exploding for 16 goals and 17 assists this season.

"Nolan has made a huge step coming in as a true freshman. Getting older and stronger. He really worked hard over the Summer," said Madigan.

Hedges is still out of the lineup, but Roy returned at the end of January for the Merrimack series. The Anaheim Ducks draft pick has five goals and six assists in 11 games since returning. He has five goals and three assists over the last six games.

"He's got a lot of pride in his game, especially on the offensive side," said Madigan of his senior scoring phenom who has had to put in a lot of extra work to get back to being healthy.

PICK: Maine will play with heart and give Northeastern all it can handle, but it won't be enough. Huskies win, 4-1 and 3-2.

No. 10 New Hampshire at No. 7 Merrimack

With a 4-2-2 finish, Merrimack climbed up the standings and earned a playoff series on home ice for just the third in the program's Hockey East era. Mark Dennehy's team won three of the last four games, including last weekend's sweep of Vermont to leapfrog the Catamounts in the standings.

Even during Merrimack's hot start to begin the season, UNH gave the Warriors fits. The Wildcats, buoyed by their top line, scored four power play goals in a win and tie at Lawler Rink.

"The first line is a good line. They have good chemistry. [Andrew] Poturalski is a very talented forward. He's good with the puck. He's a goal scorer. [Tyler] Kelleher has a lot of assists. [Dan] Correale has brought a lot to the line. He's as fast as anyone and works as hard as anyone. He's had a great year.

"In two games, we only took one point from UNH. I know our coaching staff is very aware that we need to bring our best game and it's going to be about us and the process. We have all the respect in the world for our opponent but we need to play well to succeed. Can we get that message across to the players? I think we can. Our team has a lot of respect for UNH. Hopefully we play our best hockey and then you see where the chips fall," said Dennehy.

"There were some injuries, a really difficult road trip and some poor play, so I think we're closer to the team you saw at the beginning and end of the season," said Dennehy. "I like our mentality right now. Having home ice is a treat. Home ice is great for our fans and our school, but anybody can beat anybody."

With the desperation to gain points and finish higher in the standings, Merrimack has been in playoff mode for nearly a month now. The Warriors scored four goals with the goaltender pulled for an extra attacker over the course of four games during this final stretch. "It speaks to the stick-to-itiveness of our guys," said Dennehy.

One big difference from when UNH and Merrimack met back in the first half is who will likely be between the pipes for the home team. Freshman Drew Vogler has started the last three games and given the Warriors a chance to win in all three. He picked up his first collegiate shutout in the team's 2-0 win in the regular season finale.

"Drew was a young goaltender when we recruited him as a '96 two years ago. Most goaltenders take a little more time to develop. I've seen more development from him from October to now than any goaltender I've ever had. He's improved leaps and bounds. Kudos to him for sticking with it. It was always there, but it was just a matter of refining," Dennehy explained.

It's been another sub-par season for the once perennial power from Durham. Barring a miraculous run through the Hockey East Tournament, it will be a third consecutive season missing the NCAA Tournament for the Wildcats. It will mark the first such three-year period for UNH since before the 1990-91 season.

"It's been a very frustrating and disappointing season. We have struggled and found ways to lose games. We've given games away. We need to play well with confidence and consistency," said Dick Umile.

Umile knows his team has its work cut out to take two of three from Merrimack in North Andover. "They're always a tough opponent, especially playing them at their place. They're a balanced team. They're feeling good about it."

Despite his team's inconsistency and inability to win on a consistent basis this season, UNH has shown the capability to beat any team in the country. Wins over Providence and UMass Lowell in the second half of the season prove just that.

"We've proven we can play against the better teams in the league. We can't fall behind. We have to play with consistency for 60 minutes," Umile explained.

UNH, 0-4-2 over the last six games, still has the leadership and confidence needed to pull off a road upset, according to Umile.

"The seniors have been a great group. Our senior class has done a good job for us. The leadership has been there. We've just found a way to lose games. It hasn't been a lack of leadership," Umile said. "Confidence is there that we can compete, but right now we're looking for confidence that we can play with consistency. You can't have a bad 10 minutes. Right now, the team is excited to start a new season and everyone is at zero, the winners go on."

PICK: This series has three games written all over it. Merrimack wins, 3-2 and 2-1, sandwiched by a UNH 4-2 victory.