UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin talks to his players. - Walter Rossini
The home-and-home series between UMass-Lowell and Providence will feature two of the best freshman goaltenders in college hockey as well as two second-year coaches battling for playoff positioning.
The final weekend of the regular season in Hockey East is finally here. Let's take a look at a few keys to each team's success in the final regular season series of the year.
UMass-Lowell vs. Providence
This series will be a battle of two tremendous freshman goaltenders. Connor Hellebuyck for UMass-Lowell has really been a catalyst to the second half turnaround for the River Hawks. Jon Gillies has been the unquestioned MVP for the Friars all season. Considering how each goalie has been playing lately, it is tough to give one team an advantage in the goaltending department. This series should come down to which offense can generate the greater number of quality chances. UMass-Lowell's offense has been more consistent in the second half. Joseph Pendenza and Josh Holmstrom's line has been playing extraordinarily well for UML. Another advantage for UML is their defense. Norm Bazin's defense has been playing very well, executing his game plan to perfection. It might be boring to watch at times, but the UML defense has made it very difficult for the opposition to freely carry the puck through the neutral zone. However, after a quiet weekend against BC, expect a bounce back from PC's top line of Tim Schaller, Stefan Demopoulos and Mark Jankowski. There is so much at stake in this series. No team outside BC, BU, UNH or Maine has ever won the Hockey East Regular Season Championship. UML is in position to do so this weekend with a good showing. Providence has a legitimate shot at home ice, but BU currently in back of them has a much easier schedule. This should be the best series of the weekend.
Merrimack vs. UMass-Amherst
These two teams have been hot and cold for much of the season. The UMass goaltending has been very inconsistent. Who has the edge in this series could have a lot to do with how well Kevin Boyle or Steven Mastalerz plays in net for the Minutemen. On the other side Merrimack junior forward Mike Collins needs to get back on track in order for the Warrior offense to hit their stride before the playoffs. If the Merrimack defense can bottle up the Michael Pereira, Brendan Gracel and Connor Sheary line, it could be a long weekend for UMass. Another question mark in this series will be UMass' play-off fate. If the Minutemen lose Friday night coupled with a Maine win over UNH, UMass would be mathematically eliminated from play-off contention before the game Saturday.
New Hampshire vs. Maine
Maine goalie Martin Ouellette has been playing much better on Friday nights compared to Saturday nights this season. Maine must keep the Friday game close and try to get out to an early lead, keeping the UNH crowd out of the game. The Black Bears need to cut down on mistakes in the defensive zone in order to keep UNH forwards Kevin Goumas, John Henrion, Austin Block and Grayson Downing at bay. If UNH can pressure the Maine defense, it could be a tough weekend in Durham for the Black Bears. Joey Diamond has been playing with determination the past few weeks. He'll need to use his grit and toughness to find the back of the net against a UNH team that will be competing for a regular season title.
Boston University vs. Northeastern
This match-up on paper is a no-brainer. Boston University has superior talent to Northeastern in every position. However, the Huskies have defeated BU twice already this season, once in league play and once in the Beanpot. Northeastern, having already been eliminated from playoff contention, will have little to play for outside of pride and will be undermanned due to injuries and suspensions. If BU plays with passion and realizes they cannot take Northeastern lightly, the outcome of this series should have very little doubt.
Boston College vs. Vermont
The injury bug has certainly hit Boston College, but Steven Whitney and Patrick Wey should be available to return this weekend from their injuries. The Eagles must use their speed and skill to manipulate the UVM defensive trap. Compared to his first half prowess, Johnny Gaudreau continues to struggle offensively. Up front for UVM, Chris McCarthy and Kyle Reynolds have been playing very well. McCarthy has 10 points in his last seven games. The young and injury depleted BC defense must keep an eye on that line up front. The Catamounts have very little offense outside that group.
Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.