<
>

Hockey East quarters feature familiar foes

If familiarity breeds contempt, and if a healthy dose of contempt is an essential ingredient of playoff hockey, then the Hockey East quarterfinal round this weekend promises to provide some fireworks.

Three of the four best-of-three matchups feature teams that squared off in the last weekend of the regular season. Revenge will be on the minds of the top-ranked BC Eagles, who saw their Senior Night eclipsed by Notre Dame in a 2-1 overtime loss. No. 2 Lowell and Vermont renew acquaintances after a split, and the Maine Black Bears must motor to Providence in a rematch of their recent altercation with the Friars at Alfond Arena. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, New Hampshire and Northeastern rub elbows again after not seeing one another for four months.

Of the eight quarterfinal combatants, six currently sit in the top 16 of the national Pairwise Rankings, which will determine the teams that are invited to the NCAA field of 16 after the six league champions are decided. Those are BC (2), Lowell (8), Notre Dame (9), Providence (11), Vermont (tied at 11) and Northeastern (tied with Michigan at 14).

This weekend's winners punch their tickets to the Hockey East semifinals next Friday at the TD Garden in Boston.

No. 1 Boston College (25-5-4; 16-2-2 HE) vs. No. 8 Notre Dame (21-12-2; 9-9-2 HE)

The Eagles are looking straight into the eyes of an opponent that no one in Hockey East wants to face. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are peaking at exactly the right time, with a number of injured players returning from the infirmary, and key freshmen growing into their roles. Most importantly, senior goaltender Steven Summerhays (1.88 goals-against average, .929 save percentage) and the ND defense have been in lockdown mode since Valentine's Day, allowing only five goals in their past six games (including three shutouts). Among those wins was a 2-1 overtime victory over the Eagles at The Heights, which snapped BC's 19-game unbeaten streak. The two teams split their regular-season series, with BC upending the Irish 4-3 at Fenway Park in January.

Key for the Eagles is getting their high-octane offense back on track. The defense has been tremendous all season, led by freshman goaltender Thatcher Demko (1.75 GAA, .935 save percentage). But after scoring 25 goals in their first six games of February, the Eagles have managed just three in their past two (a tie and a loss). Expect BC coach Jerry York to take advantage of the last shift to free up space for his top line of Johnny Gaudreau (30 goals, 64 points), Bill Arnold (44 points) and Kevin Hayes (51 points).

No. 2 Lowell (21-9-4, 11-6-3 HE) vs. No. 7 Vermont (19-12-3, 10-10-0 HE)

The eighth-ranked River Hawks split their final two regular-season games against Vermont in Burlington, Vt., winning the opener in overtime 1-0 before dropping their season finale 3-2. This time around, however, Norm Bazin's troops, the defending Hockey East champions, have the Catamounts at home, at the Tsongas Center. Lowell, with its third straight 20-plus-win campaign, is coming into the postseason with some momentum, going 7-3-3 since its Frozen Fenway loss to Northeastern. The River Hawks have done a solid job holding serve at Tsongas with a 10-3-3 record this season, and are undefeated in their past 11 at home (8-0-3).

Vermont is also looking up at Lowell in the Pairwise Rankings, meaning the series is taking on a "must-win" feel. The Catamounts edged the UMass Minutemen 2-1 last weekend, and have shown the ability to win away from home, with a 9-5-1 road record (including a weekend sweep at UNH last month). Sophomore Brody Hoffman (1.95 GAA, .928 save percentage) came up big against the Minutemen, and Kevin Sneddon will need outstanding goaltending again this weekend to knock off the defending champs.

No. 3 Providence (19-9-6; 11-7-2 HE) vs. No. 6 Maine (16-13-4; 9-8-3 HE)

The Friars pulled off an impressive sweep in the regular season's final weekend, traveling to Orono, Maine, and taking two games from the Black Bears, who at the time had the best home record in the league. Now the Friars are back home, making the task for the Black Bears all the more daunting. If Maine needs a reason to believe, though, it's that the Friars are only 6-3-1 in the confines of Schneider Arena. Solid, but not spectacular. However, if PC sophomore goalie Jon Gillies (2.22 GAA, .927 save percentage) is his typical spectacular self, Maine will need a special effort from its offensive corps.

Historically, the Black Bears have thrived in the underdog role, but they'll have to double their road win total (1-10-3 so far this season) to keep playing. Maine is the lowest-ranked team of the remaining eight in the Pairwise (22), and the Black Bears will need to run the table of the Hockey East tourney to make the NCAAs. Providence, meanwhile, has only to be reminded of the disappointment of failing to get an invitation to last year's NCAA tournament, despite making it to the Hockey East semifinals, to find a little extra motivation.

No. 4 New Hampshire (19-16-1; 11-9-0 HE) vs. No. 5 Northeastern (18-12-4; 10-8-2 HE)

A late-season stumble (2-4-1 in their last seven) cost the Huntington Hounds home ice in the quarterfinals, meaning they must travel to Durham, N.H., to play a Wildcats squad that swept the season series between the teams. That's a tall order for Northeastern. Still, Jim Madigan's Huskies have already confounded the naysayers, rebounding from a disastrous 2012-13 campaign and a last-place prediction in preseason polls to grab the fifth seed. Freshmen Mike Szmatula (36 points), Dalen Hedges (22 points) and John Stevens (20 points) will need to help out sophomore Kevin Roy (17 goals, 43 points) and senior Braden Pimm (20 goals, 33 points) if the Huskies hope to extend their season.

The Wildcats (Pairwise rank: 20) have humbled Northeastern twice this season, winning both games by three-goal margins, but Dick Umile's team hasn't seen the Huskies since mid-November. The Wildcats have been uneven since mid-January, going 6-6-0 over the last dozen games of the season (with big two-game sweeps over Notre Dame and Boston University), and needing a 5-2 victory over Merrimack in the season finale to garner home ice for the playoffs. The fans at UNH's Whittemore Center will no doubt be ready. The key is whether the Wildcats will be as well. Expect goaltender Casey DeSmith (2.34 GAA, .922 save percentage) and the ever-dangerous Kevin Goumas (14 goals, 45 points) to have an impact.