#1 Boston College(18-13-3) vs #10 Merrimack College (12-19-4)
This should be the easiest series to predict. Boston College has history, talent, quality goaltending, great coaching, and offensive potential. Merrimack, meanwhile, has little history and the second fewest goals per game in the conference. The last time these teams met in the Hockey East Tournament was the 2011 Tournament Championship game, which BC won. And BC won both meetings in an early-season series this year. On paper, this should be an easy pick. However, playoff hockey is rarely so simple.
The Eagles are the top seed, but they’re not a juggernaut this time. Luke McInnis had season-ending surgery to repair a broken kneecap, so BC will be without a top defenseman. The offense has also been hit or miss at points this year. Without a non-conference win this season, a series loss knocks BC out of the NCAA Tournament. Fortunately, Jerry York still has his team moving in the right direction. Logan Hutsko has shown MVP level offensive talent the last month of the season and Joseph Woll has upped his game in net. The sophomore goalie has won his last four games with a .959 save percentage and one shutout. The Eagles are once again in playoff form at the right time.
Their opponent is unexpected but tough. Mark Dennehy’s Merrimack Warriors are a classic underdog: plucky, tough, and following a strong goaltender. Craig Pantano rode the bench behind Colin Delia for two years. This year, he rotated with Drew Vogler for the regular season. In the opening round series against Lowell, Pantano got the start and proved the job was his. The Junior from Bridgewater, MA, held the defending conference champions to three goals in two games, notched a .954 save percentage, and backstopped the Warriors through two overtime wins. He will need to play that way against BC to pull the upset.
His forwards are also finding offense at critical points. Brett Seney and Jace Hennig are geared for final runs as seniors and each scored in the Lowell series. Seney drew particular praise from Dennehy as the team’s Swiss army knife. Jared Kolquist and Jonathan Kovacevic man a strong blue line that limited opponents to two goals or fewer in four of their last six games.
This is a classic underdog case. If Pantano can limit the Eagles and the forwards can find timely offense, the Warriors can pull the upset. Otherwise, BC will be back at the Garden for the second year in a row. Joseph Woll or Logan Hutsko can win the series by themselves, and I think they’ll be the driving factors for an Eagles win in three games.
#2 Northeastern (21-8-4) vs #8 UMass (17-18-2)
Northeastern and UMass have both far exceeded expectations this season. The Huskies have soared behind the three top scorers in the conference, Hobey Baker favorite Adam Gaudette, and surprising freshman Cayden Primeau in net to their first Beanpot Title in 30 years. The year has been a dream ride on Huntington Avenue.
The top line for Northeastern of Nolan Stevens, Adam Gaudette, and Dylan Sikura has completely dominated teams this season, totaling 67 goals, 75 assists, 142 points, and the top three points collectors in the conference. No line in any conference has even come close to that production.
The crazy thing about Northeastern is that it’s not just blinding offense that makes the team go. Jeremy Davies can score from the blue line, but he is among the most complete defensemen in the conference, checking and skating well to slow down opponents.
Ryan Shea and Eric Williams are also heavy on the blue line for the Huskies. But the biggest surprise for the Huskies is their biggest difference maker, goalie Cayden Primeau. The freshman from Voorhees, NJ, filled in for an injured Ryan Ruck and turned in the best save percentage and GAA in Hockey East. He won the Eberley Award as the Beanpot’s best goaltender. And he has fixed Northeastern’s biggest weakness in the last few years, iffy goaltending. Northeastern should be the favorites in the tournament with all these pieces to consider.
Meanwhile, the Minutemen rode a talented freshman class to the best record in years and the first series victory in Amherst since Jonathan Quick manned the net in 2007. The pairing of Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro has created remarkable highlights and the top scoring D pair in the conference. Other freshmen Oliver Chau, John Leonard, and Mitchell Chaffee have brought the youth movement to the forefront in Amherst with quality scoring and excitement.
Youth is even with the goaltending tandem. Sophomore Ryan Wischow and freshman Matt Murray split time this season and both got time in the playoffs against Vermont. Murray became the starter this season but was injured in the second game against the Catamounts. If he’s healthy, he’s got the start. But Wischow is a fine choice as well if needed.
While this should be a fun series, Northeastern is the favorite by the widest margin of any series this weekend. The offensive power for Northeastern is simply staggering. Primeau is a brick wall and the stars are aligning for Northeastern to continue this special season. UMass is a team of the future. Greg Carvel is building a national contender in Amherst, but unfortunately for him, this isn’t the year to pay it off. Northeastern will win in two games.
#3 Providence (20-10-4) vs #6 Maine (18-14-4)
Providence entered the season with high expectations while Maine had none in the early going. Providence lived up to their standards while Maine far exceeded their recent performances.
The Friars boast one of the best top offensive units in the conference with Brian Pinho, Erik Foley, and Josh Wilkins. Foley is the highest Hockey East scorer not on Northeastern and has carried the team through the year. The Friars fell to Clarkson in the Friendship Four Title and claimed the Three Rivers Classic and Providence Mayor’s Cup. Foley got points in every tournament or trophy game the Friars have played this year. He will need to perform well for the Friars to get back to the Garden.
The blue line and bottom six are not big scorers and only Pinho has major tournament success, he won a National Championship as a freshman. Hayden Hawkey will also have to anchor the Friar defense through the tournament as he has all season. He’s got the third lowest GAA in the conference and is capable of winning a game by himself.
Maine took a huge step forward and brought big-time hockey back to the Alfond. The biggest change was in net, where Jeremy Swayman proved himself a future star. The freshman goalie recorded a .922 save percentage and showed flashes of superstardom. The Bruins draft pick will need to be the best player for Maine to reach the Garden for the first time in six years. The offense needs to make his job easier. Chase Pearson earned a captain role as a sophomore and has room to develop. Eduards Tralmaks and Mitchell Fossier are also high scorers who have developed nicely this season and can cause Hawkey some problems. The problem I see for Maine is the defense in front of Swayman. It’s not bad, but to match Providence, it will have to be nigh on perfect. And they’ve not shown consistent defensive discipline this season. Both teams are capable of winning, but I’ll pick Providence in two hard and competitive games.
#4 Boston University (17-13-2) vs #5 UConn (15-17-2)
This is the first meeting between the Terriers and Huskies in the Hockey East Tournament, but the coaches are familiar with each other. David Quinn and Mike Cavanaugh have been friends since their days coaching at Omaha and Bowling Green respectively. Despite the friendly relationship off the ice, these men are tough competitors and champions. Their teams fit the coach’s molds of tough, physical, and grueling mindsets and have combined for entertaining games this season.
BU was ranked #2 in the preseason poll and struggled in the first half, sitting under .500 at Christmas and lost to Maine to open 2018. Since then, the Terriers have rolled through the schedule, going 8-3-3. Bobo Carpenter and Shane Bowers have led the way offensively, showing the melding of talented veterans and skilled hotshots that this team needs to make the NCAA Tournament. Jordan Greenway and Brady Tkachuk give BU size and a bruising power game that no team can match.
Brandon Hickey and Dante Fabbro lead a skilled corps of defensemen who can get in the play offensively and control the defensive game as well. And Jake Oettinger took a step back this season, but he is still a money goalie who can get a big win. The Terriers are a threat to run the table and win the conference on talent alone.
Meanwhile, UConn had low expectations for the season. The Huskies are the newest Hockey East team, having only entered in 2014. This season, Maxim Letunov powered the offense to get UConn to the second round for the first time since joining the league. He can take the puck 200 feet and make a play by himself. There is enough help to get through. Alexander Payusov and Spencer Naas are the leading goal scorers and Payusov is among the best power play scorers in the league. Miles Gendron and Adam Karashik are both draft picks on the blue line that bolsters the work David Drake and Derek Pratt do to lead the unit.
The biggest question for UConn to answer is in net. Adam Huska led the way most of the year but broke his wrist before playing Providence in January. Tanner Creel filled in and backstopped the Huskies to big wins against Northeastern, Providence, Boston College, and these Terriers. The question for UConn is how long can Creel keep his run up and how healthy is Huska. Because of the uncertainty in UConn’s net, I have to pick BU to win in two entertaining games.