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WHEA semifinal preview

Two games determine who will compete for the conference championship

Tereza Vanisova and the Black Bears will take on Northeastern as part of the Hockey East semifinals
Peter Buehner

I thought it was weird when the regular season ended. Now we’re at the final weekend of the playoffs. Four teams have one more shot at winning the Hockey East tournament at historic Matthews Arena. Boston College will face off against Connecticut at 1:30 p.m., and Maine will play Northeastern at 4:30 p.m. Let’s dissect the afternoon’s two games.

No. 1 Boston College vs. No. 7 Connecticut

In an absolutely insane turn of events, UConn has found itself in the conference semifinals. The No. 2 seed, Providence, had won the opener of the series, but the Huskies were resilient, and Natalie Snodgrass’s heroics propelled them to this showdown with the Eagles. The Huskies were 0-1-2 this season against BC.

The key to this game for UConn is goaltending. Last season, BC went up against Madison Litchfield in their semifinal contest, and Litchfield was able to keep the Eagles at bay for most of the game. This season, Annie Belanger will have to be up to the task. Belanger currently ranks first in goals against average (1.83) and save percentage (.937) in the conference this season, and had 45 saves in a 2-2 tie against BC way back on October 20. The Huskies will need a huge performance from her if they want any chance of getting into the conference championship.

The other factor for the Huskies is obviously Snodgrass, who put the team on her back just to get them here. She is going to need to continue to drive the offense and put her team in a position to succeed. UConn will also need to find some production from Leah Lum, who did not record a single point in the series against Providence. The playoffs is not the time to go cold when you had previously been second on the team in points.

As for the Eagles, Toni Ann Miano will have to be a big factor on the defensive end again. At this point it should be apparent how much she has stepped up on the blue line for this year’s Eagles team. I would wager she will be out on the ice against Snodgrass and have the duties of keeping her in check — otherwise Snodgrass will have the chance to square off with goaltender Katie Burt. Snodgrass has a goal and two assists against BC this year, so you can definitely count on a game plan focused around her.

Finally, newly named Patty Kazmaier finalist Daryl Watts will likely be the biggest presence on the ice for either team. What she has done this season is unbelievable on a number of levels, and adding a Hockey East title to her freshman resume would be absurd. Can the Huskies defensive corps consisting of Kayla Mee, Jaime Fox, and Taylor Wabick keep her from the back of the net? And even if they can, will they be able to neutralize another of BC’s offensive leaders, Caitrin Lonergan?

It’s a broken record at this point with BC — can you beat their defense? If so, can you beat their goaltending? What about their top line? How about their second line? Their third line?

If we can take anything from last weekend, it’s that UConn will not roll over and let BC skate away with this one. They have to get on the board first and dictate the pace of game, and they cannot — cannot — let Watts get open ice.

No. 3 Maine vs. No. 4 Northeastern

Brooke Stacey and the University of Maine team handed BU their lunch, in a paper bag served with a side of French fries, on Sunday. At some point the Terriers tried to eke out a polite “no, thank you” — and Tereza Vanišová promptly put the bag in their hands and shoved them out of the playoffs.

The Black Bears are no fluke, and they have a legitimate shot at taking the Hockey East title this season. The duo of Stacey and Vanišová should make everyone at least slightly afraid, and having the fourth-ranked scoring defense in the conference turns a former cellar-dweller into a team that tossed BU’s insanely dynamic top line aside when it mattered the most.

Obviously Vanišová will always be the player to watch when Maine is on the ice. Her 45 points are the most among all forwards, outside of BU and BC. She scored an electric overtime game-winning goal, but Stacey is sneaky and will make you pay if you turn your back on her. She has scored or tallied the primary assist on 10 of Maine’s game-winning goals this season. You can’t teach clutch, kids.

Goaltender Carly Jackson has a very good goals against average (1.94) but a lower save percentage (.924), and she will need to be strong in net against an angry Husky offense. The Black Bears won the regular season series, 2-1-0, and will have a tough task ahead of them, attempting to win three in one year against Northeastern.

The Huskies have given Aerin Frankel the starting job in goal, and she is running with it. She has a cumulative .930 save percentage this season and was just named the Hockey East Rookie of the Month for February. In the first round of the playoffs she made 44 saves on 47 shots and played all 120 minutes in the sweep of New Hamsphire.

Northeastern finally got big goals from Tori Sullivan, who scored both Husky goals in the second game of the quarterfinal series — they were her first Hockey East goals since Jan. 13 against Boston College. Denisa Křížová assisted on both of those goals, and McKenna Brand scored a goal in the first game of the series. If Northeastern can get that top line going for this game, they could give Jackson a rough time.

Their secret weapon will have to be Veronika Pettey, who was just named to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team. Pettey did not record a point against New Hampshire, but she has been a positive presence on the ice for the Huskies since she joined the team this fall.

Predictions:

Is anyone going to be mad or surprised or disappointed if I pick BC to win their game? No? Great, let’s move on.

Maine and Northeastern is an interesting matchup, because they are two teams with a lot of similarities. Both teams are stronger up front, have good-not-great defense, and pose different sorts of questions in net. Ultimately, I think Northeastern gets the advantage based on the number of talented players they have and the fact that they’re effectively getting a home game, playing in historic Matthews Arena.

Stay tuned for updates on the contests and the championship game on Sunday!