Hockey East – The Backcheck 2/28

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.

*Tie-breakers are based on head-to-head records. The second tie-breaker is most in-conference wins.*

Vermont Catamounts

7th, 7-11-5, 19 pts

Tie-Breaker: lose vs. UMass; win vs. Maine, NU

Remaining Schedule: 2 @ bu, 2 vs. BC

Vermont began its grueling, season-end stretch against UNH, bu, and BC over the weekend. It managed to emerge with one point in two games against UNH in Burlington. The Catamounts came up short on Friday, 4-3 and played to a 1-1 draw on Saturday. Vermont’s Brody Hoffman went toe-to-toe with one of the best goaltenders in Hockey East, Casey DeSmith, allowing five goals on 45 shots on the weekend. Despite only getting one point, the Catamounts did what they had to do this weekend – they minimized the gains made by the teams behind them while they faced a much better opponent. UMass and Maine only gained a point each, and still sit two and three points behind seventh place Vermont.

Massachusetts Minutemen

8th, 8-14-1, 17 pts

Tie-Breaker: win vs. Vermont, Maine (2nd tie-breaker, leads by 3); lose vs. NU

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

Maine Black Bears

9th, 5-12-6, 16 pts

Tie-Breaker: lose vs. Vermont, lose vs. UMass, TBD vs. NU

Remaining Schedule: 2 vs. NU, 2 @ UNH

The Black Bears and the Minutemen faced off this past weekend in a key battle for eighth place. Massachusetts was able to maintain its slim, one point lead over Maine, as both teams took home a win. On Friday, Maine shut out UMass 2-0, thanks to 30 saves from Martin Ouellette. On Saturday, three third period goals propelled the Minutemen past Maine 5-2.

Despite the split, Massachusetts’ lead over Maine is on shaky ground. UMass is just 4-8 in 2013 and snapped a five game losing streak with their Saturday night win. On top of that, the last two opponents on its schedule are nationally-ranked teams in UNH and Merrimack. The Minutemen’s goal situation has been a problem too; Kevin Boyle has been plagued by inconsistencies for the past few months. In his last two games, he’s allowed six goals on 19 shots to Lowell and was benched at the end of the second period on Friday after allowing two goals to Maine in just over four minutes. Steve Mastalerz came on and shut down the Black Bears the rest of the weekend, allowing two goals on 33 shots. Since stepping in during Boyle’s first benching in mid-January, Mastalerz has started seven games and allowed more than three goals just once. Look for Mastalerz to start the rest of the way. What he brings to the table will be essential to the team’s playoff push.

Maine, on the other hand, has won three of its past five Hockey East road games, going back to its sweep of BC at Chestnut Hill. However, it still sports a conference home record of 1-5-5. Not being able to finish one or two overtime wins at home may well end up being the difference between the playoffs and sitting at home. This weekend is especially important for Maine. A Northeastern team that is struggling mightily is coming to Alfond Arena; this is a prime opportunity for the Black Bears to put up a four point weekend. With UNH lurking next week, the Black Bears need wins – not more home ties. If they get four points, look for some movement in the standings, as UMass has its hands full with its own trip to UNH this weekend.

Northeastern Huskies

10th place, 5-15-3, 13 points

Tie-Breaker: win vs. UMass, lose vs. Vermont, TBD vs. Maine

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

It was another rough weekend for the Huskies, as they dropped a pair of games to the Providence Friars. Friday saw a 6-2 score in Providence, while Saturday saw a 3-2 tally at in Boston. With depth issues, weak goaltending, and inconsistent play plaguing the team, the Huskies now find themselves teetering on the edge of elimination. To stay alive, Northeastern needs at least two points this weekend and needs UMass to get two points or less as well. Both of these are very possible, but Northeastern would still have to sweep bu next weekend to even have a chance at postseason play. Winning three out of four games would be a tall task for a team that is 2-8-1 in its last 11 and 5-15-3 on the year. Barring a miracle, the Huskies will be on the outside looking in for the third time in four years.

Elsewhere around Hockey East –

UMass Lowell was the headline this week. The Riverhawks prevailed over bu 3-0 on Friday night at Agganis Arena and beat the Terriers again on Saturday night, 3-1, at the Tsongas Center in Lowell. Lowell finished an undefeated week with a 4-2 win at Conte Forum over BC on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Merrimack, which had been on an 8-2-2 tear, fell back to earth, dropping games to BC and bu by scores of 2-1 (OT, game-winner scored by Quinn Smith) and 5-2 respectively.

It seemed impossible last week, but after this weekend’s games the top six teams in Hockey East are now packed together even tighter. BC, Lowell, UNH, and Providence are all tied for first with 28 points. Merrimack is one point back, with 27, and bu is two points back at 26. The races for home ice and the number one seed are sure to be a dogfight here in the final weeks.

Next Up –

With just two weekends remaining in the regular season, there are plenty of important matchups on tap. Four of the six teams clustered at the top of the standings will go head-to-head, with Boston College and Providence playing a home-and-home, as well as Merrimack and UMass Lowell. Northeastern visits Maine for two contests, with both teams needing to make up some ground in the playoff picture. Vermont visits bu for two games, while Massachusetts visits UNH for two.