Hockey East Opening Round Preview

Reading, MA – The 37th incarnation of the Hockey East Tournament begins on Wednesday evening when the bottom six schools face-off for the chance to move onto Saturday’s Quarterfinal round. This year the tournament is a single-elimination affair rather than a best-of-three series. The number eleven seed Maine Black Bears will take on the sixth place Merrimack Warriors. The seventh-seeded Providence College Friars will host the tenth seed Vermont Catamounts. Wrapping up the night’s trio is ninth seed New Hampshire Wildcats visiting eight seed Boston College.

The winners will then face the Northeastern Huskies, Massachusetts Minutemen, or UMass-Lowell River Hawks. The lowest remaining seed faces the Huskies. The Boston University Terriers will travel to Hartford to take on the Connecticut Huskies as the fifth and fourth seeds.

The Semifinals and Final are at TD Garden on Friday, March 11, and March 12. It will be the first time back at the building since 2019. Covid canceled the 2020 event, and 2021 took place on campus. Massachusetts is the defending tournament champion after beating UMass-Lowell in Amherst last season.

11 University of Maine Black Bears (5-17-2-2-3-1 Hockey East) 7-21-4 @ 6 Merrimack College Warriors (13-11-0-1-3-0 HEA) 18-14-1 Lawler Rink North Andover, MA  Tickets Available

The Warriors went 2-0-1 against Maine this season. They shut out the Black Bears 5-0 and 2-0 and lost 6-5 in OT. On Saturday, the Black Bears, who went 3-7 in February/March, finished the season with an 8-1 thumping of Boston University in Orono, ME. Merrimack went 6-3 down the stretch, including getting swept by eventual regular-season champs Northeastern this past weekend. Despite the sweep, the Warriors played a tremendous game at home against the Huskies on Saturday night, a dramatic 1-0 loss in the waning seconds to clinch the title for the Huskies.

PuckingOff players to watch: Merrimack – F Max Newton-Sr., D Declan Carlile-Jr., F Liam Walsh-Jr., G Hugo Ollas,-Fr., or G Zachary Borgiel-So.

Junior Declan Carlile fires off a slapshot against UNH during a 5-2 win on February 4, 2022.

The Warriors have a plethora of offensively talented players in their forward ranks and on their back end. The three players named above for “Players to watch” could be more. Merrimack boasts four quality centers up the middle. Newton centering Steven Jandric and Alex Jeffries have been the offensive juggernaut, but Mac Welsher, Liam Walsh, and Mick Messner are not too far behind. All four have experience and high-energy motors.

“They’ve (Newton and Jandric) been good all year. The chemistry they have is long-term because they played together before,” said Head Coach Scott Borek. “The three of them, those two and Alex (Jeffries) they create a lot of stuff together. They make some things happen.”

The defensive corps is big, fast, physical, and can move the puck quickly out of the zone. Carlile has 17 assists, Zach Uens has 16, and Zach Vinnell has a dozen.

In goal, it can be either sophomore Borgiel or freshman Ollas. Borek has flipped back and forth between the two all season. “I’m not sure, to be honest. Zach has played really well the last few games,” said Borek when asked who might get the nod on Wednesday. “Hugo’s played well when he’s played. He’s been pretty dinged up. This will be a really tough call. Really tough; they both deserve to play.”

PuckingOff players to watch: Maine – F Lynden Breen-So., F Donovan Villeneuve-Houle-So., D Grant Hebert-Sr., and D Jakub Sirota, Sr.

The Black Bears don’t boast as much of an explosive offense as Merrimack, but Maine has some quality like Breen, a sophomore with 8-16-24 totals. Breen has six points in the last four games and 11 in his previous eight. Like Breen, fellow sophomore Villeneuve-Houle has been hot lately. The 6′-0″ Montreal, Quebec native has 19 points this year, eight of which came in his last seven games. Sirota and Hebert, 6′-2″ & 6’3″, are solid bodies on the back end and can cause fits for the more undersized forward on opposing teams.

Whether it will be sophomore Victor Ostman or junior Matthew Thiessen in goal on Wednesday remains to be seen. The duo has split the duties all season, with Ostman getting the nods down the stretch, but it was Thiessen, a Vancouver Canucks pick, in goal for the 8-1 win against BU on Saturday.

The Maine Black Bears listen to the US National Anthem before losing to Boston College 6-2 on November 18, 2021.
PuckingOff prediction: Merrimack wins. It won’t be close either. The Warriors have to be fuming over the way last weekend went down for them. Falling from a potential two-seed to the six will fuel their fire on Wednesday.
10 University of Vermont Catamounts (6-16-2-3-1-2 HEA) 2-24-2 @ 7 Providence College Friars Schneider Arena Providence, RI  Tickets Available 

Providence swept the Catamounts 3-0 this season. The Friars won the weekend series at UVM on November 4-3 and 2-0 before securing a 4-1 win at home in early February. The Friars finished their Hockey East schedule a week before every other school due to the uneven number of teams in the conference. They swept Maine on the road 4-2 and 3-2 in OT on February 25 & 26. The Friars went 4-3 in February and lost an exhibition game against the US Under-18 team at home this past Friday 5-4. The Catamounts went 3-8 over the season’s final month, but it was a strong enough finish to overtake Maine and not finish in last place for the third straight season.

Chase Yoder carries the puck into the Boston College zone during the 2020-21 season.

PuckingOff players to watch: Providence – F Brett Berard-So., F Nick Poisson-So., F Parker Ford-Jr., and F Patrick Moynihan-Jr.

The Friars have been an up and down team all season, but they are a 20 win squad. They’ve hung tough against NCHC powerhouses Minnesota Duluth and beat Denver. They have struggled with the upper half of the Hockey East pack. The is on the younger side with sophomores Berard and Poisson and juniors Ford, Moynihan, and Max Crozier on defense.

The goaltending has been carried by Jaxson Stauber. The 6′-3″ junior from Plymouth, Minnesota, is the son of 1988 Hobey Baker winner Rob Stauber, the first goalie to win the award. Stauber’s stats are solid, 2.10 GAA and a .922 save percentage, both in the top 15 in the NCAA.

PuckingOff players to watch: Vermont – F Philip Lagunov- Sr., F Jacques Bouquot-Jr., F William Lemay-Jr., and F Will Zapernick-So.

Vermont Catamounts Jacques Bouquet and Andrew Lucas celebrate a Vermont goal against UMass-Lowell during the 2020-21 season.
PuckingOff prediction: Vermont. This is the upset. The Cats have been playing well down the stretch, not constantly pulling out the ‘W’ but keeping it close. Providence hasn’t played meaningful hockey in a few weeks, and it catches up to them. (PC is the team that would scare me the most in both the HEA and NCAA tournament.)
9 University of New Hampshire Wildcats (8-15-1-2-2-0 HEA) @ 8 Boston College Eagles (9-12-3-0-1-1 HEA) 14-17-5 Conte Forum Chestnut Hill, MA. Tickets Available

New Hampshire swept Boston College in mid-January during the home and home series. The Wildcats won 3-2 at home before topping the Eagles 5-2 at the Heights. The Eagles were without their Olympic team players, Jack McBain for Team Canada and Marc McLaughlin and Drew Helleson for Team USA. That trio is back, and both McBain and has been hot the last few weeks. The Eagles finished 4-6-1 in February and March but have won three straight, including an impressive sweep of Massachusetts this weekend to deny the Minutemen the title. The Wildcats ended on a sour 2-7 final five weeks, but the previous game was a 1-0 loss to third place UMass-Lowell in Lowell. UNH faced a solid Owen Savory in goal while senior transfer student David Fessenden was equally as impressive in the loss.

Boston College netminder Erik Dop makes a leg save against Boston University on December 10, 2021. The Eagles won 1-0 in the shootout.

PuckingOff players to watch: Boston College –  F Jack McBain-Sr.,  F Marc McLaughlin- Sr., F Patrick Giles-Sr., and G Erik Dop-Gr. 

On paper, Boston College is filthy. Ten NHL draft picks in the lineup. And that doesn’t include Marc McLaughlin and Patrick Giles. Wow. But somehow the Eagles haven’t put it together this year. Sure they’ve had injuries, COVID issues, and players leave for World Juniors and the Olympics but there’s too much talnet there for an eigth place finish. That’s the reality though and the Eagles are putting it together at the right time. If their postseason is to continue past the Hockey East tournament they most certianly have to win Hockey East.

McBain is healthy and is a beast. 29 points in 22 games, while his 18 goals are good for seventh best in NCAA action. 18 goals in 22 games. Meanwhile linemate McLaughlin has 19 goals, and Giles has 15. The Eagles can score. It’s the back end that dooms them. Dop has been playing well and is the most recent goalie of the week in HEA play but he has a tendency to let in some shaky goals that’s why he’s on the player to watch list. It’s which Dop will show up with the season on the line?

PuckingOff players to watch: New Hampshire – F Jackson Pierson-Sr., F Tyler Ward-Sr., F Filip Engaras-Sr., and F Eric MacAdams-Gr.

“We certainly don’t want to replay that movie,” said Wildcats Head Coach Mike Souza about last year’s 3-2 tournament loss at BC. The Eagles jumped out to a 3-0 lead, and UNH nearly pulled off the comeback but fell short.

When Pierson is on, so too, usually, are the Wildcats. They’ll need a big game from the 5′-9″ forward from Zionsville, Indiana. Twenty-three points this season is his career-best; he’ll need to add to it to further said career. The former Denver Pioneer, Ward, has come on intense over the last few weeks. He has 24 points, 15 in the previous 15 games.

When the UNH power-play was clicking mid-season, the team was at its best.

“I think we kind of need to play with a chip on our shoulder,” said MacAdams. “We need to go in there and kind of take it to them. We’ve got to, figuratively, punch first. We’ve got to take it to them and after that play our system, play cocnsistant defense, our forwards have to be working their ‘D’.”

MacAdams touched on it; the UNH defense has to be consistent. They’ve struggled this season and need to shore that up to make any noise in the postseason.

 

UNH Wildcats forward Robert Cronin unleashes a shot towards Merrimack Warriors defenseman Zach Vinnell during UNH’s 5-2 loss at Merrimack on February 4, 2022.
PuckingOff prediction: UNH makes it three straight over the Eagles. Nine over 8 isn’t an enormous reach, especially when UNH knows they can handle BC.

 

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