Little more than a month ago, Northeastern and Providence were riding high.
Providence was in the PairWise top 10, and Northeastern — soon to win its third straight Beanpot — wasn’t far behind, also safely inside the NCAA tournament bubble.
Although the Hockey East standings were too tightly packed to predict anything, both teams seemed to have a good shot at playoff home ice. And it seemed inconceivable that either team might miss the league playoffs entirely.
Then everything changed.
Providence plummeted to a 2-6-1 mark down the stretch, including getting swept by Merrimack, a non-playoff team. Northeastern lost five straight, including getting swept by Vermont, the Catamounts’ only two league wins of the year.
Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, both teams were suddenly staring at the potential end of their season. They’d fallen well outside of the PairWise top 15, and could easily finish ninth in a league with only eight playoff berths.
Instead, those two teams dodged the bullet, and the sad ninth-place lot fell to New Hampshire. Neither Providence nor Northeastern backed into their playoff berths. Both split their final series, the Friars with Maine (over two weekends) and the Huskies with BU.
All of which, given the tightly packed nature of Hockey East, means Northeastern and Providence stand bloodied, but unbowed. Still fully capable of emerging with the league crown.
“Who’s the favorite in Hockey East? I don’t think there is one,” UMass Lowell coach Norm Bazin says. “Congratulations to Boston College on the regular-season title. They clearly set themselves apart in the last three weeks.
“But overall, it’s only four points separating them from anyone else. It’s great for the league. It makes the tournament that much more exciting when you’re not sure who’s going to be victorious.”
BC coach Jerry York agrees from the catbird seat of the No. 1 seed.
“We just played New Hampshire back to back games and if they were in the tournament, they could easily win it,” he says. “That speaks volumes for the teams that are in it.”
So while Providence and Northeastern must face Hockey East’s top two teams in BC and Massachusetts, respectively, and now have no margin for error — lose and their seasons are over — they’ve still got a second life in hockey’s second season.
“There’s a lot of confidence in the [locker] room,” NU coach Jim Madigan says. “Regardless of how you finish the regular season, the playoffs are a brand-new season altogether.
“Winning on Saturday gave us a positive flavor and [showed] how we need to play and [gave us] a little jump in our step, knowing that, hey, the playoffs are brand new and our goals are still in front of us.
“We achieved one of those goals early in February [defending the Beanpot title]. The next goal is mid-to-late March, and we’ve got older guys who have been there. They’re excited about this opportunity.
“Regardless if we finished in seventh or sixth or fifth, we know this league is really tight. We know all good teams are good, but we also have confidence in our own abilities.
“I don’t know if we look at it as a second life. We just look at it as an opportunity to win a championship.”
Health, or lack thereof, contributed to the Huskies’ five-game skid. The losing streak lines up almost perfectly with top scorer Tyler Madden (among others) being sidelined. Madden is back to skating, but remains a game-time decision for this weekend.
“[We] believe that our best hockey’s in front of us,” Madigan says.
The cause of Providence’s late-season downfall was different, namely a young team loaded with freshmen and only three senior skaters suddenly struggling to score.
“A lot of our young guys hit a wall and we kind of lost our game a little bit,” PC coach Nate Leaman says. “[But] we’ve worked our way out of it. The past two weekends [against Maine], we’ve played really good hockey.
“This is a second chance. BC is the best team in the East, [but] I know there’s belief in the locker room that our team can beat anyone.
“It’s about us finding our game. Let’s focus in on one shift at a time, and really go out and execute.”
The scoring struggles will take care of themselves, Leaman figures, even if the Friars’ last game was one in which they outshot Maine 48-24, only to have Jeremy Swayman stop all 48 shots.
“The puck’s got to go in eventually,” Leaman says. “Sometimes you just don’t get the bounces, but I think there are some little things offensively that we can do better, particularly around the net front.
“We need to move our feet much better on the rush, and we’ve just got to make sure the guys are seeing the net.
“Every time they touch the puck, they [can’t be] thinking, ‘I have to score, I have to score.’ Our guys have to get the puck, look for the net and be relaxed, or find the back door or find the lateral pass.
“Don’t just think shoot, shoot, score, score. Relax, see the options, and make plays. I think we have good offensive players that can make those plays.”
Odds are that Boston College and UMass will end Providence’s and Northeastern’s seasons this weekend. The Friars won’t appear in their seventh straight NCAA tournament. Northeastern won’t successfully defend its Hockey East title.
But if one of them — or both! — pull off the upset, it won’t really be much of a surprise.
So you’re telling me there’s a chance…
Not one of the quarterfinal matchups resulted in a regular-season sweep. Each team came away with at least two points.
In fact, the lower-seeded road teams collectively were a game over .500.
No. 1 BC and No. 8 Providence split, 1-1-0.
No. 2 UMass topped No. 7 Northeastern, 2-1-0.
No. 3 Lowell fell to No. 6 BU, 0-1-2.
No. 4 Maine fell to No. 5 UConn, 1-2-0.
My last column
As I announced in my previous column, this is my final year writing for USCHO.com. Which makes this my final column.
I mentioned my hope that I’d see many of you at playoff venues leading up to the Frozen Four, but with the threat of the coronavirus, the games may be played in empty arenas.
Perhaps we’ll meet again in future years, but if this is the end, it’s been great. Thanks to all of you for reading. It was great to become friends with so many of you.
Keep in touch with me via my writing website, www.hendricksonwriter.com, which in the future I may actually have time to keep up to date.
My best to all of you.