Hockey East tourney starts Thursday

BOSTON – Hockey East coaches routinely refer to their league as the most competitive in the country, top to bottom. And the playoffs usually bear that out. You only have to look back as far as last year, when 8th seed Vermont derailed top-seed New Hampshire, preventing the Wildcats from playing in Boston’s TD Garden.

Here's a look at the four quarterfinal matches -- all best-of-three series -- that will decide which teams will travel to the Garden for the league semifinals on March 18. Boston University and Northeastern get things rolling on Thursday, while the other three series begin Friday.

No.1 Boston College vs. Massachusetts

The top-seeded Eagles (26-7-1; 20-6-1 Hockey East) are looking to repeat their national championship run last spring, which began with a two-game sweep against the Minutemen (6-21-6; 5-16-6 HE). BC is white-hot right now, riding an 18-2-1 run and sweeping UNH last weekend to claim the school’s 11th regular season Hockey East crown.

To make matters worse for UMass, the Eagles are loaded, despite the loss of sniper Chris Kreider with a broken jaw. BC has the league’s top offensive squad (3.85 goals a game, 3rd in the nation), led by junior Cam Atkinson (24-14-38) and senior Brian Gibbons (10-26-36), and the league’s best defense (2.24 GAA), anchored by senior netminder John Muse (.933 save percentage). Plus, the Eagles excel at special teams, with the nation’s No. 6 power play, and No. 3 penalty kill (12 shorthanded goals on the season).

Toot Cahoon’s Minutemen proved resilient, claiming the league’s last playoff spot on the last night of the season with a gritty 4-4 tie against Maine. Senior captain and goaltender Paul Dainton (.910 save percentage), the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Week, was instrumental in the tie, stopping 32 shots. He’ll have to be at the absolute top of his game if the Minutemen are to have any chance at Conte Forum this weekend.

No. 2 New Hampshire vs. No. 7 Vermont

It’s déjà vu all over again for the UNH Wildcats (19-9-6; 17-6-4 Hockey East). Same rink, same opponent. Dick Umile’s Wildcats have to be thinking of last spring’s embarrassing early exit from the Hockey East playoffs at the hands of Kevin Sneddon’s Catamounts (8-18-8; 6-14-7 HE). In that series, Vermont rebounded from a 7-4 opening-night loss to post back-to-back 1-0 wins and take the series, two games to one.

UVM’s diminutive Rob Madore, who almost singlehandedly stole that series, is back in goal, but his Catamount teammates have been desperate to score goals this season, scoring only 2.29 goals per game. That lack of production has put added pressure on Vermont's defense, which hasn't always been up to the task, surrendering 3.31 goals a game.

The Wildcats have plenty of offensive pop -- 3.5 goals per game -- led by league scoring champ Paul Thompson (26-23-49), but the bigger question might be whether UNH has the mental fortitude. They had a chance to wrap up the league’s regular season title last weekend, but let it slip away when they lost twice to Boston College. It wasn’t UNH’s first late-season nosedive, and New Hampshire fans are clamoring for a trophy.

No. 3 Boston University vs. No. 6 Northeastern

With the Terriers (18-10-8; 15-6-6 Hockey East) and Huskies (12-14-8; 10-10-7) splitting a two-game set last weekend, this quarterfinal match-up has the feel of a best of five series. Last weekend, the Terriers knocked off the Huskies at Matthews Arena, 3-2, and the next night the Huntington Hounds returned the favor with a 4-3 win at BU’s Agganis Arena.

The Huskies get head coach Greg Cronin back on the bench, after he and assistant Albie O’Connell served a six-game suspension for recruitment violations. The team defense, except for two seven-goal lapses against Boston College last month, has generally been solid, with goaltender Chris Rawlings holding the fort (2.51 GAA, .924 save percentage, league-leading five shutouts). Scoring, however, has only been average (2.79 goals per game).

Meanwhile, the Terriers, which spent a short stint atop the country’s national polls, have been an enigma for coach Jack Parker. They are a talent-laden squad that doesn’t always play to its blue-chip capabilities. According to goalie coach Mike Geragosian, goalie Kieran Millan has stolen at least a half-dozen games, covering for the mistakes of an underage defense. If they’re not careful, the Terriers might find themselves buried by a Northeastern Nor’easter.

No. 4 Merrimack vs. No. 5 Maine

The referees assigned to this game will want to get a good night’s rest beforehand, because they can expect to be busy. The last time these two teams met, in late February, they combined for more than 300 penalty minutes over a two-game set in Orono. The Black Bears (17-10-7; 14-8-5 Hockey East) swept the Warriors (22-8-4; 16-8-3 HE) by two lopsided margins, 4-0 and 7-1.

It is one of the few league series that Merrimack lost this year, after winning 3-game sets against higher-ranked Boston College, New Hampshire, and Boston University. This quarterfinal series, however, will be played at Merrimack’s Lawler Arena, where the Warriors thumped Maine in January by a 7-1 score. So expect one, if not both, of these teams to light up the scoreboard, and to fill the scoresheet under “penalties.”

Merrimack does have sensational sophomore Stephane Da Costa back from injury (he missed all three games between the teams), but Maine counters with gifted junior Gustav Nyquist (17-29-46). Given the wild score swings, the series may come down to goaltending. While Merrimack’s Joe Cannata (2.37 GAA, .913 save percentage) has been dependable, and often spectacular, if Maine’s scorching hot freshman goalie Dan Sullivan shuts the door in the Black Bear net (three shutouts in the past six games), this could be a very interesting series.

In other Boston-area college playoff news:

No. 3 Dartmouth vs. No. 10 Harvard

In ECAC Hockey, Harvard (11-19-1; 7-14-1 ECACH) continued its fine recent run of form, knocking off No. 7 Clarkson in a two-game sweep last weekend, setting up an all-Ivy series at Dartmouth (16-10-3; 12-8-2 ECAC). The Crimson have won five straight games with timely scoring -- notably from brothers Micheal and Danny Biega -- and airtight goaltending from senior Ryan Carroll.

Dartmouth won both regular-season meetings with the Crimson, posting an 8-2 victory Nov. 26 at Harvard’s Bright Hockey Center in Cambridge and a 5-2 win a night later at Thompson Arena in Hanover, N.H. However, Harvard has been finding ways to win lately, and they have history on their side. The Crimson are 4-0 all-time in playoff games against Dartmouth. The teams have never met for a multi-game series in the playoffs. Three of the previous four games came in the league semifinals, including the most recent meeting, a 10-1 Harvard victory on the way to the Crimson's 2006 league title.

The winning team will reach the league semifinals, being held this season at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., for the first time.