It's cliche to say that there is nothing better than playoff hockey, but this past weekend proved just that. Even the first round of the Hockey East Playoffs involving the bottom eight teams in the league standings during the regular season provided plenty of drama.
Of the nine games in the first round, all but one of them were decided by one goal, and the one that wasn't was a two-goal game due to an empty netter with 13 seconds left. Four games went to overtime and one series went three games.
Boston University, Northeastern and Merrimack all advanced on home ice while Vermont was the only road team to move on to next weekend's Hockey East Quarterfinals.
Terriers close out Minutemen, Micheletto era
The No. 5 vs. No. 12 match-up wasn't expected to provide nail-biting suspense, but it did just that. Boston University needed overtime in game one and a third period goal in game two to sweep a feisty Massachusetts team that didn't quit.
The end of the season for the Minutemen also meant the end of the John Micheletto era in Amherst. The fourth-year head coach was relieved of his duties early Sunday morning, just about 12 hours after his team was eliminated. The former Vermont assistant had a 39-88-13 record during his tenure. According to a press release from the school, a national search is underway to find Micheletto's replacement. Assistant coach Ryan Miller will serve as the interim coach until a replacement can be named. Don't expect the new coach to keep either assistant as both had direct ties to Micheletto from his days as an associate head coach in Burlington.
Bobo Carpenter scored both goals, including the overtime game winner, in Friday's 2-1 win in game one. In the clinching game, Danny O'Regan and Jacob Forsbacka-Karlsson each potted two goals. Up next is the highly anticipated series at UMass Lowell in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 match-up.
Northeastern needs OT to sweep Black Bears
The Huskies needed overtime in both games to sweep a resilient Maine team that most, including this typist, had left for dead. Northeastern overcame a 2-0 deficit to win, 3-2, Friday in overtime thanks to a Matt Benning blast in the extra session. On Saturday Northeastern jumped out to a 3-0 lead, but saw it evaporate. Kevin Roy's unassisted goal in overtime was his second of the night and third on the weekend.
"I can't fault our hockey club in terms of effort and intensity for the entire weekend, not just tonight's game. ... We came in here and battled," said Maine coach Red Gendron after Saturday's game.
Northeastern will have its work cut out for itself, heading to South Bend this upcoming weekend for a series against Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish will be the heavy favorite, but the Huskies can't be taken lightly. With Kevin Roy's reemergence from injury, Jim Madigan's club now has three legitimate lines that can contribute offensively. They'll need a big performance out of freshman goaltender Ryan Ruck to pull the upset and land at the TD Garden in the semifinals for the first time since 2011.
Underclassmen come through for Merrimack
Merrimack thoroughly dominated possession in each contest, but needed to win the final two games after losing in the first one to advance to the quarterfinals. The Warriors will travel south to take on Providence beginning Friday night at Schneider Arena.
"Statistics don't lie, Corsi works. If you do it long enough. Over a short period it doesn't always prove itself out, but over a long period of time, if you spend more time in the offensive zone and get more shots on net, you're going to have success," said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy.
Merrimack's top four scorers on the season combined for just a goal and two assists on the weekend. It was some of the team's less heralded players that came through big. Freshman Ludvig Larsson scored the overtime game-winner on the power play in game two and sophomore Jace Hennig had the deciding tally in game three.
Freshman walk-on Derek Petti scored a goal in each game after scoring just two during the regular season. The local product out of nearby Tewskbury, Mass. is a great testament to never giving up. He played Division 2 public school hockey for the Tewskbury Redmen before playing in an obscure junior league for the Middlesex Black Bears.
"I don't know why they don't recruit more players from the Middlesex Black Bears and Tewksbury High. He's a great story. He really is. He just keeps getting more confidence," said Dennehy.
Another big storyline is the continued emergence of freshman goaltender Drew Vogler who ran his record to 5-5-1 on the season after largely being an afterthought for the first four months of the college hockey season. The Florrisant, Mo. native has a 1.16 goals against average and .953 save percentage over his last four starts in which he's gone 4-1.
Vogler's biggest save came with just about a minute to go in the game when he robbed UNH sniper Andrew Poturalski with a blocker save. As Dennehy often says, he just needs his goaltender to make the game-winning save.
"[Vogler] made a fabulous save on Poturalski on the first minute of the power play we had at the end. That was a huge save. That was the tying goal right there," said UNH coach Dick Umile.
"I don't think I'll forget that. That one scared me a little bit. He was in front and thankfully I got out there in time, it was a bang-bang play," Vogler added of the big blocker save.
"Excellent, really nice," Dennehy said of that save. "He made another one, too, that hit him in the chest, but he had to really hustle to get over there. When a goalie gets hit in the chest going post-to-post, that tells you that he's on."
Vogler is drawing praise from his teammates who are recognizing his progression and impact on the team's turnaround of late.
"For a freshman coming in, he stood on his head. He's done really well. He's risen up and he deserves what he's gotten," said Hennig.
Vogler wasn't the only goaltender to rave about after the series at Lawler Rink. UNH sophomore Danny Tirone was nothing short of a miracle worker, keeping the Wildcats in each game. He made 132 saves over the three games as he watched his team get outshot 138-79.
"He played great. For the second half of the season, he was in a groove. He's been playing great for us," Umile said.
Moving on to Merrimack's next series, the Warriors certainly have an uphill climb to upset the defending national champions. Dennehy's club stood right with Providence outside of the third period in the second game during the team's two meetings in the regular season.
"They're really good. They're really deep. They don't have a lot weaknesses. They've got a good power play," said Dennehy of his team's upcoming opponent.
"I'm really excited. I've wanted a shot at them all year, I'm chomping at the bit to get there. We're going to go in there and give everything we have and see what happens," Vogler said.
Seasoned Catamounts slip past Huskies
There's no denying the advantage experience has when it comes to moving on in the playoffs. That was evident in the series at the XL Center where a Vermont team that knew what it took to win in the post-season came into Hartford and left with a series sweep of host Connecticut.
"We're making progress. Both games could have gone either way. The difference was Vermont is a battle-tested team and we're building to become a battle-tested team. It's hard to win in the playoffs," said Cavanaugh.
The game-winning goal each night was scored by of the player you'd least expect. Sophomore Rob Darrar tallied his first of the season Friday and Brian Bowen connected for just the third goal of his rookie campaign on Saturday with just over a minute left.
Junior goaltender Mike Santaguida made his second and third consecutive starts after missing 18 games with an injury. The Mississauga, Ontario native does a good job stopping pucks, including the 32 saves he made in Friday's 2-1 win, but it's the communication and energy he brings that makes a big difference.
"We were getting really solid goaltending from Packy Munson. We've been lucky to have two good goaltenders. The one thing you notice immediately is his puck handling. It's very, very good. He's probably the loudest guy on the team in terms of quarterbacking back there. To have a goaltender that really takes charge back there, guides his defensemen, it's so helpful. Communication is huge," said UVM coach Kevin Sneddon.
"He made some huge saves out there this weekend," said Sneddon.
Vermont now has the unenviable task of heading to Conte Forum where it will look to pull a road upset in the quarterfinals for a second consecutive season. Last year the Catamounts, buoyed by goaltender Brody Hoffman, advanced to the TD Garden in three games.
It was certainly a heartbreaking way for UConn's four seniors to go out, but head coach Mike Cavanaugh made certain to point out the impact the group had in the program's transition from Atlantic Hockey to Hockey East.
"It's never a fun night when your season ends... With Shawn [Pauly], Patrick [Kirtland], Joey [Ferriss] and Kyle [Huson], I feel very confident that they're all going to graduate. When we get that [trophy], when we do, those guys along with some of the former players from last year that are the guys that built this foundation, they'll be my first phone calls," said Cavanaugh.
UConn had a two-day total of 8,617 come through the turnstiles, by far the best of any of the four venues for the first round. Despite the disadvantages of an off-campus facility, the Huskies have locals excited about the hockey program, which is a good sign for their continued well-being in the nation's top conference.
"I think our fans are the best in the league. When you look around at the attendance at other buildings, we're blowing them away here. The fans were great. We had a ton of energy," Cavanaugh said.