It's no stretch to say crunch time is here
The Beanpot Tournament is history and the stretch run is upon us. With eight games remaining in the regular season, the jockeying for position will be even more significant as some Hockey East rivals battle for home ice in the tournament quarterfinals, others fight to get into one of the eight qualifying spots, and all try to remain healthy.
Here's a look at each squad as the campaign heats up:
1. Northeastern (19-7-2, 14-4-1) - The most pressing question regarding the Huskies, who were runners-up in the Beanpot, is how will they rebound from the disappointing loss to Boston University? Next up, NU has a home-and-home series against UMass, which won't be easy. But the Huskies, ranked No. 3 in the country, have won seven of their last 10 games.
Coach Greg Cronin said it's great to be able to have destiny in their hands.
"Every point is significant," he said. "There are 16 points up for grabs for everybody. We are all at the same game total at this point in the season, so it takes on a playoff atmosphere. I think there is no better way to approach the post-Beanpot schedule than to have that opportunity."
2. Boston University (22-5-1, 13-5-1) - The Beanpot champs, who are ranked No. 1 in the country, head to Maine for two and are riding a hot streak of eight victories in a row. Coach Jack Parker said the plan is to just stay the course.
"For the most part, we're going to just keep working on some of the stuff we have to improve upon and work on the other stuff we're doing well and make sure we stay sharp," said Parker. "In general, we're not going to make a lot of adjustments when we're playing [the Black Bears]. We play similar styles. It's going to be the type of game we just played with Northeastern."
3. Vermont (16-6-4, 11-5-3) - The Catamounts have been in the weeds for much of the season, despite their success, and coach Kevin Sneddon likes it just fine that way.
"We have no problem with the attention being placed on other teams," said Sneddon, whose team has just two losses in its last 11 games (7-2-2). "We tend to not draw a lot of attention to ourselves, and I think that can be a good thing. We just kind of go about our business and hope that it means good things for us in the end."
4. New Hampshire (13-9-4, 9-7-3) - The Wildcats are having a decent season, but coach Dick Umile said the team, which faces Providence for two this weekend, could be better, particularly on the power play.
"I like the way the team is competing," said Umile. "Defensively, we have gotten much better as a team. Some nights offensively, with our forwards, there isn't enough puck support, but overall I'm pleased with the forwards offensively."
(tie) 5. Boston College (13-9-4, 8-7-4) - The Eagles, who eked out a win over Harvard in the final minute of regulation in the Beanpot consolation game, will have their hands full the next two weekends with UMass-Lowell and UNH. "It's a pretty critical stage," said coach Jerry York. One of the highlights the last couple of games has been the production of Benn Ferriero, Ben Smith (playing with a hernia that will require surgery after the season), and Joe Whitney, who had struggled offensively.
"It's really important for them to produce on offense," said York. "They're kind of the catalyst for our hockey team, and I think I've seen some great improvement. If [Ferriero] gets hot, he can be as big a difference-maker as we've had over the last number of years."
(tie) 5. UMass-Lowell (13-13-0, 10-9-0) - The River Hawks have given opponents fits all season. Coach Blaise MacDonald believes his team can earn home ice.
"We feel we're right in the mix," said MacDonald, whose team has won four of its last five. "To get it is really difficult. We don't want to look too far ahead, but the fact it's the middle of February and we're still looking at that as a realistic goal is a good thing."
7. Maine (12-13-3, 7-10-2) - The young Black Bears have won two of their last three after a stumble of seven games in which they went 0-6-1. One of the reasons they have righted the ship is the play of goaltender Scott Darling.
"Scott has had a great freshman year," said coach Tim Whitehead. "He had an excellent start, of course, and in the second half, a lot like our team, cooled off a bit. So I kept him out for a few games and he did a great job of refocusing. He had a tremendous game against UNH [26 saves in a 1-0 shutout], and it was not an accident. He had practiced very well leading up to that. I was very happy to see him get the results."
8. UMass-Amherst (11-14-3, 6-10-3) - The Minutemen have an opportunity to make some noise with two games against NU. Coach Don Cahoon said his team needs to be more disciplined and stay out of the penalty box, not only this weekend but for the rest of the season.
"We do a great job killing penalties but we are getting too many," said Cahoon. "It just depletes the energy and it might explain how we haven't been able to get consistent efforts in the third period. The power play and offense have been inconsistent and are mostly where our struggles have come from."
9. Providence (7-16-3, 4-12-3) - The Friars have just one victory in their last seven (1-4-2), but coach Tim Army has seen improvement after they dug themselves a hole in the first half of the season.
"I think we've played better hockey, more consistent hockey since Christmas," said Army, who has gotten strong play from goaltender Alex Beaudry. "I think Alex has given us some stability in net. We've played better, put some points on the board."
10. Merrimack (6-17-3, 2-15-2) - It has been a tough season, but the Warriors are gradually making strides. Coach Mark Dennehy said he's proud of the way his players have stayed resilient and determined. Dennehy, whose club faces a tough task with two at home against Vermont this weekend, has tried to keep everyone upbeat.
"I am a subscriber to the Foundation For A Better Life website and I get quotes from there daily," said Dennehy. "It's not a spiritual thing, it's just to keep our guys' heads in the right place. One of the things I've talked to them about is as frustrated as they are, they at least get to go out every Friday and Saturday night and hit somebody else. I've got to rely on lack of sleep and too much coffee."
Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at email@example.com.