Hockey East: Opening Round Preview

Hockey East playoffs kick off on Wednesday with two spots in the quarter finals up for grabs.

Hockey East: Opening Round Preview
University of Maine goaltender Jorden Mattison making a save at Alfond Arena. (Photo featured on @MaineWHockey on X/formerly Twitter)

Hockey East playoffs get underway on Wednesday with two opening round matchups. After the change of the postseason format during the 2021-22 campaign, all 10 of the conference’s teams will participate in the four-round tournament. And what better way to start out the 2024 HEA postseason than two entertaining matchups? 

First Game: #7 Boston University (BU) hosting #10 Holy Cross (HC)

Previous Games This Season: 

  • December 8th, 2023 – 2-1 BU win at BU
    • Goals from: Ani FitzGerald (BU), Madison Michals (HC), Luisa Welcke (BU - PP)
  • January 26th, 2024 – 2-1 HC win at BU
    • Goals from: Ani FitzGerald (BU), Alexia Moreau (HC), Bryn Saarela (HC)
  • January 27th, 2024 – 3-2 HC win at HC 
    • Goals from: Millie Sirum (HC), Clara Yuhn (BU), Emily Crovo (HC), Alex Law (BU), Crovo x2 (HC) 

Wednesday will mark the fourth matchup of the season for these two teams, as the Terriers and Crusaders face off at Walter Brown Arena in Boston at 6 PM. 

Holy Cross has often found themselves at the bottom of the standings since joining the conference back in 2018. The team has slowly but surely been improving in Hockey East play over the years. They may have only four wins in conference play this season – but two of those came against BU in January, including a 2-1 victory at Walter Brown. 

The path to success on Wednesday doesn’t look too great for the Crusaders though. After the weekend sweep, Holy Cross went 0-7-1 to close out the year. In that stretch they were outscored 29-14, including eight goals against on the penalty kill. For reference, they’ve taken 22 penalties in those contests, a success rate of 63.7% (this season overall they're killing 74.5% of penalties taken). 

The Terriers on the other hand have had a bizarre 2023-24 to say the least. First-year head coach Tara Watchorn has come in and overhauled the style of play the team operates under. Yet, they’ve seen marginal improvement in the win column compared to this time last year. In their last eight games of the regular season, the Terriers posted a 3-5-0 record; an eerily similar end to the season compared to how they finished their last eight games this time a year ago (3-4-1). 

Thinking back to last season as well, this is exactly the same scenario the Terriers played in the opening round in 2023. As the seventh seed, the team took on the Merrimack Warriors at home to open the playoffs. BU was then stunned in overtime 5-4, ending their season, as the 10th seed moved on. Could we see a repeat of that at Walter Brown this week? 

Predicted Outcome: 

Honestly, I don’t think we have a repeat from last year. Even though BU has struggled over the last few months of the season, they’re still a better team overall than the Crusaders are at the current moment. The return of Callie Shanahan was massive in the second half for BU, and in her one appearance against Holy Cross this season she saved 26 of 29 shots. 

Although I would give the advantage in goaltending to the Crusaders, it comes down to the on ice play as a whole. To me BU has the more complete team, and that's going to be the difference here.

I’m expecting the Terriers to take this one by a score of 3-1. 

Streaming Information: ESPN+ (United States), NESN (New England),
Stretch (International)

Second Game: #8 Maine (ME) hosting #9 Merrimack (MC)

Previous Matchups This Season: 

  • January 20th, 2024 – 3-3 Tie, at MC, Warriors with the extra point in the shootout
    • Goals from: Ann-Frederique Guay (ME), Ida Kuoppala (ME - SH), Guay x2 (ME - PP), Ally Qualley (MC), Sophie McKinley (MC - PP), Emma Pfeffer (MC) 
  • February 2nd, 2024 – 3-2 MC OT win at ME 
    • Goals from: Sophie McKinley (MC - PP), Adriana van de Leest (ME - PP), Raegan Wurm (ME), Mary Edmonds (MC – PP), Teghan Inglis (MC - OT)
  • February 3rd, 2024 – 2-1 MC win at ME
    • Goals from: Ida Kuoppala (ME), Maria Lindberg (MC), Lindberg x2 (MC)
      • Maine outshot Merrimack 40-13 in the contest

For the first time since the playoff rule change, the Maine Black Bears will play in the opening round of the Hockey East playoffs. The Warriors on the other hand, after finishing last in the conference standings a year ago, have bumped up to the ninth seed in 2024. 

Both of these teams are right on par with their squads from last year records wise. Team statistics though are a whole other story. 

The biggest thing that stands out comparing this year's Black Bears squad to last years is the scoring – Maine’s production as a whole has gone way up. They’ve gone from averaging 2.2 goals per game to 2.7, and their power play conversion rate has gone up nearly 4%. 

Of the teams in Hockey East, Maine is the only school with three players in the top-10 in overall scoring. Ida Kuoppala (38 points in 34 games played) leads all skaters in the conference, Ann-Frederique Guay (28 PTS in 33 GP) sits in fifth, and Rahel Enzler (20 PTS in 34 games) rounds out the trio in a tie for seventh. Combining their top end talent with their depth scoring and solid defense creates a force all over the ice that Maine has used to their advantage all season.

Merrimack couldn’t be more different. Their 1.7 goals per game is dead last in the conference, and in the last four games they managed just two goals in total. Defensively it’s not much better, as they allow 2.9 goals against per game, mainly thanks to a penalty kill that is last in the conference (74.8%). They’re just not a team that can keep up offensively with the Black Bears on paper – but if their sweep in February was any key, on paper doesn’t mean everything. 

There is something to be said for momentum. In their last eight games, Merrimack compiled a 3-5-0 record, while Maine at 4-4-0, is not that different. The main discrepancy is Maine's three game win streak heading into the postseason – Merrimack has dropped their last four contests leading up to Wednesday.

The Black Bears also have home ice advantage, the caveat being the Warriors went to Orono at the beginning of the month and swept the home team. That has to count for something at an arena like the Alfond. 

Predicted Outcome: 

Honestly, I think we might see an upset in this game. Merrimack played spoiler in the opening round last year against BU and I think they will do it again in 2024. They know what it takes to win in Maine, and they’re undefeated to this point in the year against them. 

The Black Bears won’t make it easy for them though, especially if Jorden Mattison gets the start in net. In 14 games played this season, Mattison has a .928 save percentage, the fourth best mark for goaltenders in Hockey East. In her last start against Merrimack however, she gave up two goals on 13 shots – not a reassuring mark. I’d expect her to bounce back in this game, especially based on her last three performances to close out the regular season. 

I’m expecting a low scoring game for this one. It’s going to take overtime, but Merrimack will secure the 2-1 win – and their berth in the quarter finals. 

Streaming Information: ESPN+ (United States), Stretch (International)

Quarterfinal Information: 

Once the opening round ends, the quarter finals are scheduled to take place the following Friday and Saturday. Two of the four games are already confirmed. First up is Boston College, who as the fourth seed will host fifth-ranked Providence College on Friday at Conte Forum at 6 p.m. ET.

At 1 p.m. ET on Saturday, the regular season champions get their first opportunity of playoff hockey in 2024. UConn will host the lowest remaining seed after the opening round. This season marks the first ever regular season crown for the Huskies since joining the conference in 2002. 

New Hampshire, thanks to a sweep of BC to close out the regular season, leapfrogged the Eagles for third place in the conference. They’ll host sixth-seeded Vermont in the third quarter final scheduled for Saturday, with a 6 p.m. ET puck drop at the Whittemore Center on deck.

For the first time since 2018, Northeastern finds themselves not atop the conference standings. The Huskies of Boston finished in second, but will play in the last quarterfinal in a 7:30 PM ET game at Matthews Arena on Saturday. Their opponent will be determined after the opening round concludes (the highest remaining seed). 

All Hockey East post season matchups can be watched on ESPN+ in the United States and on Stretch internationally. Both UConn and Northeastern’s quarter finals will additionally be streamed on NESN+ in New England.