Hockey East – The Backcheck 1/31

This is a weekly feature appearing on Thursdays that discusses the four teams in the chase for the last two playoff spots in Hockey East.

Massachusetts Minutemen

7th place, 13 points, 11 conference games remaining

Vermont Catamounts

8th place, 12 points, 10 conference games remaining

The Minutemen and the Catamounts currently occupy the final two playoff spots in Hockey East after splitting a pair of games in Burlington this weekend. Friday night saw Massachusetts take home a 3-2 victory. Saturday saw Vermont return the favor, picking up two points with a 3-2 win. Perhaps the most interesting note to come from the weekend is that Steve Mastalerz has wrestled the goaltending job from Kevin Boyle. Boyle, who started 16 of UMass’s first 19 games, struggled in a home game against Providence back on January 11th. He surrendered five goals on 30 shots, leading to a benching the next night by head coach John Micheletto. Since then, Mastalerz has started four straight games, posting a 2.27 GAA over that span. Massachusetts has now won four of its past seven, including wins against Dartmouth and Boston College, and seems to be trending upwards.

Vermont, meanwhile, snapped a five-game losing streak and picked up its first Hockey East win since taking down Maine in Orono on November 30th. It was also Vermont’s first win at home, outside of the Catamount Cup, since beating Northeastern on November 18th. It was an impressive effort against a Massachusetts team on the upswing and gave the Catamounts two important points, pushing them past struggling Northeastern in the standings.

Northeastern Huskies

9th, 11 points, 10 conference games remaining

It was an ugly, ugly weekend for the Huskies, who left three points on the table. They had the good fortune of catching red-hot Lowell on an off weekend and managed to put up third period leads of 4-2 and 4-1 on Friday and Saturday respectively. Inevitably, Northeastern’s inconsistent play showed up again, allowing Lowell back into both games. On Friday, 4-2 became a 4-4 tie, extending the Huskies’ home winless streak to six games. Their last win at home came on November 11th, against Alabama-Huntsville. On Saturday, a 4-1 Husky lead became a 5-4 OT win for the River Hawks. The River Hawks played like they were on a mission for the last twenty minutes of the game. That kind of killer instinct was in stark contrast to a Northeastern team that, in the final minutes of both games, wasn’t playing to win, but to not lose. The silver lining is that the Husky offense may have figured things out. The team has averaged 4.25 goals over the past four games, against Boston University, Boston College, and Lowell no less. The defense, meanwhile, has dropped to last in the league (3.32 goals/game). It should also be noted that Bryan Mountain started both games this weekend over Chris Rawlings. Mountain looked shaky on Friday, but bounced back on Saturday with a solid performance.

Maine Black Bears

10th place, 10 points, 11 conference games remaining

Hockey East is a difficult conference to predict, where any team can win on any given day. That being said, Maine’s sweep of Boston College at Conte Forum this weekend was not something anyone could have predicted. This is a Maine team who still has yet to win at Alfond Arena this year, a Maine team who is dead last in scoring with 1.68 goals/game (more than half a goal behind ninth-place Vermont). Yet, they still managed to go to Chestnut Hill and score 4-1 and 3-1 wins over the nationally ranked, first-place BC Eagles. BC started backup goalie Brian Billet on Saturday and was playing shorthanded on defense, with Patch Alber, Mike Matheson, and Colin Sullivan all out with injury. But that doesn’t change the fact that these were two impressive and important wins for the struggling Black Bears. They almost doubled their season point total and now sit only two points out of eighth place.

Elsewhere around Hockey East – Merrimack and New Hampshire split a home and home series, with the Warriors taking a 3-2 win on Friday and the Wildcats rebounding to a 6-2 win the next night. Boston University, having lost four of six, righted the ship against Providence with a 3-2 win at Schneider Arena and a 3-3 tie at home. A large divide has now formed between the top six teams and the bottom four; Lowell and Merrimack are tied for fifth, with 18 points, and sit only five points back of first-place BC. However, they both sit five points ahead of seventh-place UMass.

Next Up – This weekend will not feature a full slate of games, as the Eagles, Terriers, and Huskies all prep for the 61st Beanpot on Monday night. The latter two will matchup in the early (5 PM) game, while BC draws Harvard in the late (8 PM) game. Before that though, the three Hockey East teams will battle for important points. Friday night will see the Terriers taking a ride out to Amherst to play Massachusetts. Meanwhile, BC and Northeastern play games on home ice, facing Vermont and New Hampshire respectively. The rest of the conference schedule has Maine hosting a pair of games, Friday against Providence and Sunday against Lowell. On Friday, Merrimack will also host Lowell, before heading to Durham on Saturday to finish their season series against UNH.