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Hockey East Weekend Preview: February 19-20, 2016

Notre Dame sophomore center Jake Evans
Notre Dame sophomore center Jake Evans
Matt Dewkett

A huge two-game series between first place Notre Dame and third place Providence highlights the weekend's action in Hockey East. With just two weekends left in the regular season, the playoff picture is starting to take shape, but there is still plenty to be determined.

With the divide between the top five and bottom seven teams in the standings, there is a general idea of where teams will be going or not going in the first round and quarterfinals. Several teams have terrific opportunities to solidify their positions or improve their standing this weekend.

Hockey East Standings

Team GP W-L-T Pts. Games Left SOS *
1 Notre Dame 18 14-2-2 30 @PC (2), BU (2) 1.39
2 Boston College 18 12-1-5 29 @UVM (2), UML, @UML 1.06
3 Providence 18 12-3-3 27 ND (2), @UMA, UMA 1.03
4 UMass Lowell 20 11-5-4 26 @BC, BC 1.61
5 Boston University 18 10-5-3 23 @UNH, UNH, @ND (2) 1.19
6 Northeastern 18 6-8-4 16 @UConn, UConn, Maine (2) 0.61
7 Vermont 18 6-9-3 15 BC (2), @MC (2) 1.11
8 New Hampshire 18 4-9-5 13 BU, @BU, @UConn, UConn 0.97
9 Connecticut 18 4-10-4 12 NU, @NU, UNH, @UNH 0.80
10 Merrimack 18 2-9-7 11 @Maine (2), UVM (2) 0.69
11 Maine 18 4-12-2 10 MC (2), @NU (2) 0.75
12 Massachusetts 20 2-14-4 8 PC, @PC 1.50

Notre Dame at Providence

The series of the weekend takes place at Schneider Arena. Predicting a split between the two teams seems logical, but more than two points one way or another would go a long way for the team on the winning end.

Will home ice play a key factor here? Providence is 10-1-2 on Huxley Avenue this winter, but the Irish have not suffered any road woes. Jeff Jackson's club is 8-2-4 away from South Bend, including 7-1-1 in Hockey East games.

Notre Dame and Providence feature two of the best offensive defensemen in the country. Sophomores Jordan Gross and Jake Walman are one-two in scoring among defensemen in Hockey East games and rank second and third nationally, only behind St. Cloud's Ethan Prow.

Overall, the Friars might have the edge in skating and possession ability by their defensemen, but the Irish are no slouch in that department. Despite only average Corsi numbers, Notre Dame has the best shots on goal margin of any team in Hockey East.

The Irish have better numbers on the power play and penalty kill, where they rank tops in the league at 90.8 percent. A key for ND this weekend will be applying pressure on Walman at the top of the point and not letting the St. Louis Blues prospect tee off one-timers.

Montreal prospect Jake Evans has had a terrific sophomore campaign for the Irish. He's the leading scorer on the team, but his impact on the game goes well beyond that. He's a great two-way center who took just about every key draw in his team's defensive zone in a recent close win over Vermont. His hockey IQ, coupled with his skating ability, makes him one of the preeminent two-way centers in college hockey.

Providence has a sophomore center who has also made similar progression in his second go around in Hockey East. Washington Capitals pick Brian Pinho is great on face-offs and has picked up his scoring touch as well.

For a road team to have sustained success, it often needs an elite goaltending performance. Notre Dame's Cal Petersen has been terrific all season long, including a stretch of four games in a row that he's allowed just one goal in each for a .968 save percentage.

It seems Providence has had trouble maintaining the aggressive and tenacious forecheck for a full 60 minutes. There have been more than a few games this season where the Friars played one period like the best team in Hockey East than coasted the rest of the way. This should be a terrific series, but one has to like Providence's chances of walking away with two points or more if it plays a complete game each night.

Merrimack at Maine

The series at Alfond Arena could go a long way in determining what happens at the bottom of the standings. If either Maine or Merrimack sweep, they could put themselves in position to move up into the top eight, which would mean hosting a first round playoff series.

The Warriors still haven't won a league game since Nov. 13, but Mark Dennehy's team played a lot better last weekend after a disastrous first period at BC.

The Black Bears have struggled to score, but in their four Hockey East wins they are averaging 4.25 goals per game. In the other 14 games, 12 losses and two ties, Maine has just 14 goals scored.

Maine has been much better at home this season and Merrimack has been abysmal on the road, so the cozy confines of Orono could be the difference for the Black Bears this weekend.

Boston College at Vermont

The Eagles haven't lost since the calendar switched to 2016 and appear to have an opportunity to gain ground on first place Notre Dame this weekend. With the Irish facing a vastly superior opponent, can BC make up one point to tie for first or overtake them?

Jerry York's club is 5-0-3 on the road in Hockey East games this season. A trip to Burlington isn't an easy one, but the Catamounts have surprisingly been better on the road this season than they have at the Gutterson Fieldhouse. BC has the talent and determination to skate away from UVM with four points.

Northeastern vs. Connecticut

While Northeastern likely can't move up into the top five, Jim Madigan's team is in position to solidify its spot in the six spot with two series remaining against teams in the bottom seven of the standings. It starts this weekend in a battle of the Huskies.

There has been much talk of Kevin Roy's injuries and lack of production, but what hasn't gotten enough attention is the terrific play of Northeastern's now top line. The line of John Stevens, centering brother Nolan on the left and Zach Aston-Reese on the right, has gone under the radar.

Nolan Stevens had three goals and two assists last weekend in his team's sweep over UMass. Aston-Reese has a goal in each of the last three games while adding two assists. The junior has become one of the better two-way forwards in the league.

NU has taken care of business against weaker opponents, UNH, Merrimack and UMass, taking all 12 possible points. Madigan's team has a chance to continue to do just that over the final two weekends with UConn this weekend, then Maine visiting Matthews for a pair.

Boston University vs. New Hampshire

Last weekend UNH missed out on a golden opportunity to solidify a home series in the first round of the playoffs. The Wildcats were only able to take one point from UVM in a home series at the Whittemore Center. Perhaps no team in Hockey East has been more Jekyll and Hyde this season than Dick Umile's. Wins over Providence and UMass Lowell have proven the Wildcats can beat anyone, but befuddling losses and hapless performances have been mixed in there as well.

The Terriers were hoping to sweep UMass Lowell last weekend, but a slow start in the series finale derailed hopes of that happening. With the River Hawks off from league play this weekend, BU can overtake them for the coveted fourth spot with a sweep of the Wildcats.