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NCAA: Hockey East Playoff Preview

The NCAA postseason is upon us once again!

Last season BC captured the Hockey East title; who will reign supreme this year?
John Quackenbos, BC Athletics

It’s hard to believe the Hockey East regular season has come to an end, but we’re in the middle of February, and this Friday is the start of the conference playoffs. The top eight teams in the conference make it to the playoffs (sorry, Merrimack), with the top four teams hosting the bottom four on home ice for each best-of-three quarterfinals series. Every series will start this Friday, February 23, with game two held on Saturday, February 24, and any necessary game threes on Sunday, February 25.

Let’s get right into this, starting with the regular season champions, the Boston College Eagles versus the Vermont Catamounts.

#1 Boston College (28-3-3/19-2-3 HEA) vs #8 Vermont (10-18-5/7-13-4 HEA)

It’s been a disappointing season up in Burlington after they made the conference semifinals last season, only to be bested by BC in a dramatic double overtime game to end their season. The brightest spot for Vermont this year is Eve-Audrey Picard, who tallied 14 goals and 10 assists this season. Her numbers are down from last year when she scored 35 total points, but everyone on Vermont saw a dip in production including forwards Alyssa Gorecki and Saana Valkama.

With the departure of goaltender standout Madison Litchfield, Sydney Scobee grabbed the starting role and ran with it. Her 9-13-4 record this season may seem disappointing, but she does have a .927 save percentage on the year. She’s turned it on as of late and posted a .934 save percentage and 2.14 goals against average since the start of January.

Vermont ranked 8th in both scoring offense (1.97) and scoring defense (2.73) in the regular season.

Meanwhile, Boston College had a wild season. They lost Megan Keller, Kali Flanagan, and Cayla Barnes to Team USA centralization, and their best forward was a freshman. Katie Burt had a rough start to the year, relative to her typical numbers.

They’ve still been one of the best teams in the nation.

This is BC’s series to lose, frankly. They were 3-0-0 against the Catamounts this season, although one of those wins did come in overtime. Daryl Watts will likely break another freshman scoring record, Toni Ann Miano will have a big goal, and Katie Burt will go hard in the playoffs.

Ho-hum.

If Vermont wants to win this series, they need to play beyond anything we’ve seen from them in their own zone this season. They need to limit turnovers. They cannot go on the penalty kill. These are all instances where BC can capitalize and make a team pay. If UVM can play smart, they have a chance. Two of the matchups between the Eagles and Catamounts this season were decided by one goal.

Verdict: Give me the Eagles in two with Daryl Watts leaving Conte with four points over this series.

#2 Providence (16-11-7/12-7-5 HEA) vs #7 UConn (13-12-9/7-11-9 HEA)

The Huskies went full Ice Bus this season and lay claim to the best defense in the conference and the best goaltender by save percentage in Hockey East. Annie Belanger and her league-leading .935 save percentage backstopped UConn to a 1.97 GA/GM scoring defense, but their offense fell flat producing 2.29 G/GM, which was sixth in the conference. Natalie Snodgrass ended her first collegiate regular season with 17 goals and 16 assists, but beyond her and maybe Leah Lum, it was a quiet year for the Huskies.

They will have to go against Providence and their soul crushing penalty kill, clicking at 87.2%. The Friars had what looks like a relatively mediocre season on paper, with only the number four scoring offense and defense and a lack of a 20-goal scorer or a 30-point getter. Madison Myers was able to take a huge leap forward and post a .925 save percentage, and Providence simply played smart effective hockey. They tied the season series with UConn 1-1-1, but it is evident that they are capable of controlling the pace of a game, and when things get out of hand, they can trust in Myers.

The Friars will need someone to step up in the postseason to go for a shot at the Hockey East title. Maureen Murphy leads the team in goals (16) and points (26), which is not bad, but they have to get past Husky Annie Belanger, who has a lot to play for in her senior season.

For UConn, it is going to be about even strength scoring. They are not going to be able to crack Providence’s power play. They need to out-possess the Friars and force Myers to make saves in hopes that she will slip up.

Verdict: Providence is poised to head back to the semifinals for the first time since 2013, but it will likely take three games for them to get there. Belanger can steal a game for the Huskies, evidenced by her nine games with 30 or more saves (including a 45 save performance against BC). Friars in three, and Belanger makes 30 or more saves in every game.

#3 Maine (17-12-5/12-7-5 HEA) vs #6 Boston University (13-15-6/7-11-5)

Maine seemingly came out of nowhere this year, but the Black Bears find themselves with the three-seed and deservedly so. A former basement dweller, Maine has never won a Hockey East playoff game. They are 0-3-1 in their last four games, including a sweep at the hands of BC and a loss and tie to Providence. It was not the way they hoped to go into the playoffs, especially since they have to face a BU team that is fresh off a big senior night win.

The Bears have at their disposal, however, the best non-Boston forward in the conference. Tereza Vanisova scored 13 goals and 26 assists this season, and her 39 points are 14 more than her next closest teammate, Brooke Stacey. The Czech Republic native is the Maine offense this season and is as lethal as nearly anyone in the conference. Combine that with Carly Jackson and her .927 save percentage, and you have a team that hits you with star power.

On the other side of the ice, Bach Univer- sorry, Boston University, will try to upset the Black Bears in Orono. The story of the season for the Terriers has been the meteoric rise of Victoria Bach who became the first Terrier in program history to score 60 points in a season. Yes, first ever. Her and Rebecca Leslie have been amazing this year, and on the blue-line, Abby Cook has solidified her position as a top defender in the nation. Corinne Schroeder has taken over responsibilities in net, but only sits on a .916 save percentage.

This should be a fun series featuring some great play from a few future national team regulars. I don’t want to have to make a prediction on this series either.

The matchup here to watch is Vanisova against Schroeder, as the freshman goaltender for BU has struggled down the stretch and probably won’t be winning too many awards for her performance. She can play a solid game and even ball out like we saw against BC in the Beanpot final, but an elite forward can really do damage against her.

Verdict: Do I have to? Maine, but barely. Three games, all decided by one goal, maybe some overtime in there. Neither team is so deep that I believe in their ability to generate 60 minutes of offense, but the goaltending is so shaky for the Terriers I have to give it to Maine.

#4 Northeastern (15-16-3/11-11-2 HEA) vs #5 New Hampshire (14-13-7/9-10-5 HEA)

Northeastern is the most wildly inconsistent team in the nation. They have a tie against Clarkson, a win over Wisconsin, and a victory against BC. They also have losses against Vermont, Harvard and UConn. What do you even make of that at this point? The offense will show up for a few games, then disappear as they finally get good goaltending. One game will be a clinic in disciplined possession-based hockey and the next will be nothing short of a mess.

The Huskies need freshman Aerin Frankel to step up. She has a .930 save percentage in 17 games played, and there needs to be that level of consistency this weekend. On the front end, McKenna Brand and Denisa Krizova, with diminishing point totals, feel the loss of Hayley Scamurra at center on their top line. Kasidy Anderson has stepped up nicely and is establishing herself as a goal scorer, and freshman Veronika Pettey took off this season for a total of 26 points this year.

On the other hand, New Hampshire has one win in their last five games. That one win was against Boston College, so nothing really makes sense about this. New Hampshire cannot seem to find much offense at all, averaging 2.24 G/GM which was seventh in the conference. What kept them at the five seed? Probably a .928 save percentage from Ava Boutilier, plus crappy play by the teams below them. UNH is a good shot generating team, and they can play well in their own zone, but their inability to finish strong in the offensive zone has killed them this season.

Meghara McManus is tied for the team lead with 11 goals and Carlee Toews leads the team with 13 assists. When you have such low point totals at the end of the season, it’s hard to get a home ice playoff series.

This series comes down to which team can tighten up loose ends and find a way to put together a solid, complete series. If NU can find scoring from their top six, it’s over for UNH. The Wildcats will need to get hot, which will be tough given how they fizzled out to end the year (win against BC not withstanding).

Verdict: NU in two. They played with conviction against Vermont on senior night and then found a ton of offensive chances against Providence to end the regular season. This will be a low scoring series.

Conclusion

There you have it, a look at each series in the Hockey East playoffs. I went chalk with the picks, but I’ve been wrong in the past. The conference is very top-heavy this season, but the bottom isn’t as low as it has been in years past (again, sorry, Merrimack). Playoffs start this Friday, the first games begin at 2 p.m.