The first day of March brings the first day of the Hockey East playoffs. The regular season is complete and march madness can begin. Let’s take a look at the three opening round Hockey East Playoff series.
#8 UMass (15-17-2, 9-13-2) vs #9 Vermont (9-18-7, 6-12-6)
Playoff hockey returns to Amherst for the first time in over a decade. Head Coach Greg Carvel has recruited top-tier talent to Amherst and the Minutemen are moving in the right direction. Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro have solidified the blue line while Jake Gaudet, Oliver Chau, and Mitchell Chaffe have upped the offensive punch. These freshmen join Niko Rufo and Austin Plevy to form an entertaining group. The problem for the Minutemen is in net. Ryan Wischow and Matt Murray have both struggled and neither won the job for most of the season. Murray performed well down the stretch, but this is the first playoff hockey he has faced. He is the biggest question mark for the Minutemen.
Meanwhile, the Vermont Catamounts have disappointed this season. A 20 win team last year, the Catamounts had some expectations to compete in the top half of the standings. Instead, they were in last place in January. Ross Colton and goaltender Stefanos Lekkas were the only bright spots for most of the season. Those two did lead UVM out of the pits with a sweep of Merrimack and three points in two games against Providence. But Head Coach Kevin Sneddon has some work to do for this playoff series. I think the Minutemen have more depth than UVM and that UMass will win the series in two games.
#7 UMass Lowell (17-17-0, 11-13-0) vs #10 Merrimack (10-19-4, 7-14-2)
The Riverhawks disappointed after a season of high expectations but still opens the playoffs with a home series. They are the only team without a tie this season and still have seasoned players from last year’s Hockey East Title team. John Edwardh, Ryan Dmowski, and Ryan Lohin are all quality scorers and Tommy Panico, Chris Forney, and Tyler Mueller are all strong defenders. Their goaltending was also solidified with Christoffer Hernberg’s excellent season. Lowell presents a quality team that can go on a run, but they will need to up the offense that finished in the middle of the conference for goals per game.
Merrimack has been quiet offensively, with the second fewest goals per game this season. Brett Seney and Jace Hennig will need to increase their offensive output with their careers on the line. Jonathan Kovacevic and Jared Kolquist have strong skating skills on the blue line and can give the Riverhawks some trouble. Craig Pantano earned the starting goalie job but struggled in the regular season finale in the Tsongas Center. He will need to be at his best to top the Riverhawks.
Ultimately, Lowell has the depth, experience, and punch to top Merrimack. Lowell will win the series in two games.
#6 Maine (16-14-4, 10-11-3) vs #11 New Hampshire (10-18-6, 5-14-5)
This had to happen. One of college hockey’s grandest rivalries in the playoffs with Dick Umile’s career on the line. On paper, this series should be an easy call. Maine has progressed and has one of the future stars in net with Jeremy Swayman. The Black Bears have some quality young talent with Mitchell Fossier and Chase Pearson on the forward line. Patrick Holway and Brady Keeper are also promising young defenders and they’ve led Maine to their best record in years. And Swayman is a candidate for the Hockey East’s rookie of the year award.
Meanwhile, New Hampshire struggled in the back half of the year. They have not won since February 3rd against UMass Amherst, and their record since January is 1-9-4. Jason Salvaggio and Charlie Kelleher do have some offensive skill on the forward line, but the Wildcats have slumped offensively with back to back shutouts against Northeastern. The best part of the team is the blue line, where Benton Maas and Max Gildon have developed strong blue line play, both offensively, on the power play, and stopping people. Danny Tirone is a quality playoff performer but has struggled lately, being pulled in both losses to Northeastern to close the year.
Despite the apparent disparity in direction, rivalries have different rules. These teams played three times and all three matchups went into overtime. The two games played in Orono were ties and the Valentines Day game in Durham was a Maine victory. These teams will stage a great series, and I won’t be surprised if the games get into overtime. I still think Maine will win, but UNH will give them a battle in three games.