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Dog-eat-dog matchup

NU vs. BU a true elimination series

GREG CRONIN Needs rare road win for NU GREG CRONIN
Needs rare road win for NU
By John Powers
Globe Staff / March 10, 2011

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The drama comes with the ticket in this canine carnival.

Boston University and Northeastern have played nine straight hockey games that were either decided by one goal or ended in a tie.

“Most of them weren’t middle-of-the-season league games,’’ said NU coach Greg Cronin, whose sixth-seeded Huskies (12-14-8) take on third-seeded Boston University (18-10-8) tonight in the opener of their best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series at Agganis Arena. “They were significant.’’

Five of the last six came in the Beanpot or on the final weekend of the regular season. But not since 1997 have these two old rivals, who have met 209 times since 1931, faced each other in the postseason with one certain to go on to the Garden and the other to go home. The archives say that the survivor will be BU, which has reached the semifinals a record nine consecutive times and hasn’t lost a home series since 1998.

“Their history is as good as it gets,’’ acknowledged Cronin.

Northeastern hasn’t won a road series since its eighth-seeded varsity stunned Boston College in 1991, but the Huntington Hounds figure to be very much in the chase after playing seven consecutive one-goal games against the Terriers, including last Saturday’s 4-3 decision that was only NU’s second victory at Agganis.

“They’re really good,’’ testified BU coach Jack Parker, whose squad won five of those seven meetings. “You’re playing the sixth-place team in Hockey East, not the sixth-place team in the Eberhart Division.’’

The Huskies, who spent most of the autumn snoozing amid a torpid 1-7-3 start, came alive at the Beanpot, where they pushed BC into overtime in the final, then tied and beat the Eagles twice on the following weekend.

Beating BU when it matters, though, has been devilishly difficult.

Last year, Northeastern had a shot at home ice for the playoffs going into the final two games. After the Terriers won, 5-4 and 4-3, the Huskies ended up missing the playoffs, which nobody expected.

“I remember Jack congratulating our team and wishing us good luck the next week,’’ Cronin said.

The Terriers long have been masters at walking the tightrope. This season they’ve played 17 one-goal games and won 12.

“They’re not going to get rattled in a close game,’’ said Parker.

Which is why the Huskies were heartened by last weekend’s triumph, which ended a nine-game skid at Agganis and was achieved by backup goaltender Clay Witt making 41 saves.

While BU hasn’t been knocked out of the tournament at home since eighth-seeded Merrimack did it an unlucky 13 years ago, the Terriers have had to work to survive in their last four outings, being forced to the three-game limit by Merrimack, Maine, UMass-Lowell, and Vermont.

“We know how difficult this is,’’ said Parker.

So anyone who’s familiar with these rivals is expecting Three Dog Nights, with plenty of grinding and growling. This is a knockout series not only for the tournament but also for the season. Northeastern’s chance at an at-large berth for the NCAAs vanished a while ago.

“We have to win every game,’’ said Cronin, who’s back behind the bench after serving a six-game suspension for NCAA recruiting violations. “We’re about as desperate as you get.’’

Though the Terriers have been on an upswing (4-1-1) since their slap-awake loss to Harvard in the Beanpot consolation game, they’re on the bubble in the pairwise rankings that essentially determine selection and likely would have to win the Hockey East tournament to make the 16-team field.

That’s what BU did the last time it met NU in the playoffs, winning, 6-2 and 7-1, to spark a run that took Parker’s club to the national championship final. Any year, that qualifies as dog heaven.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.