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Hockey East Weekend Preview: Key games dot the schedule

Noah Hanifin (pictured) lost the first battle to Jack Eichel. Will Friday's BC-BU game at Agganis Arena go differently?
Noah Hanifin (pictured) lost the first battle to Jack Eichel. Will Friday's BC-BU game at Agganis Arena go differently?
Matt Dewkett

After just three league games last weekend Hockey East will jump back into the serious part of the schedule as the second half begins in earnest this weekend. As it usually is when the two teams get together the spotlight will be on Agganis Arena Friday night with the clash of Boston College and Boston University. However, there are some other games this weekend that carry significance and possible postseason ramifications, looking down the road.

Comm Ave. Battle

Evan Rodrigues' two goals including the game-winner paced the Terriers to a 5-3 win at BC back in November. The Terriers were in the midst of their stellar first half while the Eagles were sputtering to a disappointing first 10 games of the season. Top 2015 NHL Draft prospects Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin will once again garner much of the attention in an individual battle among two of the elite young American hockey players.

The 267th meeting between the two schools will be broadcast live on New England Sports Network (NESN) at 7 p.m. It's the last scheduled regular season contest this season, but the scarlet and white and maroon and gold could do battle again in the Beanpot or in the postseason.

Key Series at Bottom of Standings

10th place New Hampshire and 12th place Massachusetts go head-to-head in a home-and-home series that kicks off Friday at the Mullins Center in Amherst. The Minutemen have struggled mightily on home ice in conference games, going 0-6 and being outscored 39-13 in those six games. Can John Micheletto's team turn its struggles around on Friday?

If not, it could cement UMass' place in last place. Currently UMass sits two and three points behind Maine and UNH, respectively, in the standings, but the Black Bears and Wildcats have three games in hand. UMass will have to contend with a scorching hot Grayson Downing, who has scored eight goals in the last five games including the last four Wildcat goals.

New Kids on the Block

Notre Dame and UConn will square off in an unusual home-and-home series in a battle of the league's two newest members. Hockey East had traditionally been a conference confined to bus trips throughout New England, but with the addition of Notre Dame, flights have come into the mix. The two teams will face-off Friday in South Bend before flying back for a Sunday matinee in Bridgeport.

The Fighting Irish and the Huskies have butted heads in other sports in the past, being former members of the Big East, but this weekend there are four important points on the line in Hockey East play. Heading into the season these two teams weren't expected to be very close in the standings, but the Huskies have exceeded expectations. Mike Cavanaugh's team has upset nationally ranked Boston College, Vermont and UMass Lowell at home this year.

Expect two low scoring games this weekend as UConn and Notre Dame fight for points in the middle of the Hockey East standings.

Alfond Misfortune

A year ago Maine was 13-3 on home ice at the Alfond. This season has been a different story for the Black Bears, but Red Gendron's team has some semblance of momentum heading into two tough home games against UMass Lowell and Boston College.

Maine is 3-1 over its last four games, albeit against Canisius and UMass. Last time out Matt Morris pitched a 29-save shutout in his first appearance since Nov. 28 against Vermont. No matter who the goalie, Morris or freshman Sean Romeo, the Black Bear defense and goaltending will have to be up to snuff if the team plans to pick up points against UML and BC.

A key for the Black Bears will be the play of Devin Shore and Ben Hutton. Depth and defense are an issue and if Maine is going to make up ground in the standings during the second half, its best players need to be its best players.

Key Nonconference Series

Merrimack and Quinnipiac play a home-and-home series in a Hockey East vs. ECAC Hockey battle that could go a long way in determining the fate of each team's Pairwise and NCAA hopes. Currently Quinnipiac sits just inside the proverbial Pairwise bubble at No. 14 while Merrimack is on the wrong side of the cutoff line at No. 18.

The two teams split a home-and-home series last year when the Warriors were a much worse team. Merrimack has two very good lines and the goaltending should give Mark Dennehy's team the leg up this weekend.

King of the Hill

It's still January and there is plenty of time until the final weekend of February for movement in the Hockey East standings, but Sunday could be a battle for first place. UMass Lowell and BU each have a game before their Sunday afternoon showdown at Agganis Arena, but the teams enter the weekend tied for first place in Hockey East with identical records of 7-1-2 within the league.

The Terriers have the serious edge in talent as they do over most teams in the league, but never count out the ability of Norm Bazin to get his troops ready for action. No team is more difficult to play than the River Hawks. The biggest question mark for UML will be if Kevin Boyle can withhold the charges of Eichel and company.

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Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.