Hockey East – The Backcheck 2/21

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.

Vermont Catamount

7th place, 7-10-4, 18 points

Remaining Schedule: 2 vs. UNH, 2 @ bu, 2 vs. BC

The Catamounts came up with a huge performance this weekend, taking all four points from a floundering Northeastern squad. On Friday, they came away with a 2-1 win and on Saturday they pulled in a 3-1 win. The freshman goaltender for Vermont, Brody Hoffman, has started every game so far this season and the reasoning for that was clear. Hoffman was impressive; he saved 55 of 57 shots on the weekend and stonewalled every opportunity Northeastern had. With lackluster weekends from the three teams around them, the Catamounts vaulted to the forefront of the playoff race. They’ve won four of their last five and now sit in the driver’s seat for a playoff berth. However, they still have six games against three of the top four teams in the conference in UNH, BC, and bu.

Massachusetts Minutemen

8th place, 7-13-1, 15 points

Remaining Schedule: 2 vs. Maine, 2 @ UNH, @ Merrimack, vs. Merrimack

It was not long ago that Massachusetts was the team in control in this playoff race. Appearing to hit their stride a month ago, the Minutemen were cruising towards a Hockey East playoff berth, winning five of eight at one point. That is no longer the case. UMass dropped all three contests this week. They were swept by Lowell with scores of 6-3 and 3-2 over the weekend. Kevin Boyle struggled in goal in the first game, allowing six goals on 19 shots. As a result, Steve Mastalerz received the start the next night and allowed three goals on 32 shots. On Tuesday, Mastalerz started again, but could not deliver as the Minutemen lost to Northeastern, 5-4, in overtime. They coughed up a 3-1 lead in the second period and a 4-3 lead midway through the third. UMass does not have a trusted goaltender and has now lost four in a row and five of their last six. Two of those losses came to direct competition (Vermont and Northeastern). The Minutemen find themselves clinging to a one point lead for the last playoff spot over Maine, headed into a weekend visit from the Black Bears.

Maine Black Bears

9th place, 4-11-6, 14 points

Remaining Schedule: 2 @UMass, 2 vs. NU, 2 @ UNH

With Massachusetts being swept by Lowell and NU being swept by Vermont, this weekend was a huge opportunity for Maine to move up in the standings with two games at home against a struggling bu squad. However, the Black Bears had another disappointing weekend in Orono, managing to take home just one point. On Friday, the Black Bears and Terriers tied at 3 and on Saturday, bu came up with a 5-4 win in overtime when Matt Nieto scored with 3.8 seconds to go. As much talk as there has been about Maine turning things around, they are still only 3-4-4 against Hockey East in 2013. Failure to convert in overtime is costing the Black Bears; they’re 1-1-6 in overtime this season, leaving eight of ten possible points on the table. Maine will go to Amherst this weekend, looking to take the final playoff spot from the Minutemen.

Northeastern Huskies

10th place, 5-13-3, 13 points

Remaining Schedule: @ Providence, vs. Providence, 2 @ Maine, vs. bu, @ bu

Northeastern had a frustrating weekend, getting swept by Vermont, by scores of 2-1 and 3-1. NU came into the weekend fighting for its playoff life, desperately needing points. Two games against the Catamounts presented a vital chance at making up ground. The Huskies, though, displayed little urgency, often letting their frustration shine through instead. Vermont’s intense physicality frustrated them, particularly Kevin Roy, who was rendered almost completely ineffective with relentless Catamount hits. Struggles at home will be a big reason why NU misses the playoffs, if it does. Since starting the season 2-0 at home, Northeastern is now 2-8-3 at Matthews Arena. The only two wins came against Alabama-Huntsville.

On Tuesday, Northeastern stepped up its game and showed resiliency. The Huskies fought back, overturning a third period deficit for just the second time in the past four years, and came out with a 5-4 overtime win. Josh Manson had the game-winning goal, the first of his career. Bryan Mountain relieved Chris Rawlings in goal to begin the third period and the decision paid dividends for head coach Jim Madigan. Mountain saved all seven shots he faced and the momentum swung firmly in NU’s favor. The win kept the Huskies alive in the playoff race, but with Providence due up next, they’ll likely need some outside help to keep pace.

Elsewhere around Hockey East –

Friday night saw a huge shakeup in the Hockey East standings, as red-hot Merrimack downed the BC Eagles in overtime, 2-1, allowing the Warriors to claim sole possession of first place in Hockey East. Sunday saw both BC and Merrimack tie, against Providence and UNH respectively. Thus, with three weeks to play, Merrimack leads Hockey East after going 8-2-2 to start 2013. BC is one point back, in second, while UNH is one point further back, in third. Providence and bu, both one point behind UNH, are fighting it out for the final home ice spot. Lowell lurks two points behind them. Both Lowell and bu have a game in hand over the Friars.

Next Up –

The third-to-last weekend of Hockey East regular season play is upon us and there are plenty of important matchups. The highlight series this weekend will be the fight for eighth place, between Maine and UMass in Amherst; the Black Bears visit for two games. Vermont will host UNH for two, while Northeastern will play a home-and-home against Providence. Lowell and bu will play a home-and-home as well, before Lowell visits BC on Tuesday in a blizzard-makeup. BC will visit Merrimack Sunday, before Merrimack plays its own blizzard-makeup at bu on Tuesday.