There's an adage in college hockey that points won in November count as much as points won in March. While it's important to come into the springtime playoffs with momentum, the reality is that the autumn months can make or break a team's season.
Rest assured, the coaches of four Boston-area hockey teams -- No. 2 Boston College, No. No. 16 Boston University, No. 6 Merrimack, and Northeastern -- will be driving that point home to their players early and often this week, with a true turning-point weekend on tap. The four teams are the featured combatants in two local games on Friday, leading to Sunday's headliner, the first-of-the-season showdown between the archrivals BC Eagles and BU Terriers. Neither team can afford to look past Friday.
At BU's Agganis Arena, the Terriers (3-3-1; 2-2-1 Hockey East) will welcome the country's lone undefeated team, the Merrimack Warriors (7-0-1; 6-0-1 HE). Just a few miles up Commonwealth Avenue, meanwhile, BC (8-2-0; 6-1-0 HE) hosts the sputtering Northeastern Huskies (1-5-2; 1-5-2 HE), a team that appears on the verge of a breakout game if it can get its special-teams act together.
Last weekend, the Huskies had a chance to knock Merrimack off its lofty perch, but a power shortage on NU's power play left Jim Madigan's squad on the wrong end of a 3-2 overtime loss. After tying the Warriors, 1-1, at MC's Lawler Arena on Friday, the Huskies were poised to take three points out of their conference foes the next night at home.
With the teams deadlocked at 2-2, NU failed to score on a two-minute power play with less than six minutes remaining. The Huskies got another golden opportunity when Warrior Kyle Bigos was whistled for high-sticking at the close of the third period. But it was Merrimack who collected the three points, when Warrior Ryan Flanigan cashed in on a shorthanded bid at 1:57 of the extra session, with Bigos still in the box.
Both the Eagles and Terriers also squandered points last weekend, losing road matches against teams that, on paper, weren't in the same class. That speaks to another oft-repeated axiom in Hockey East: "There are no easy games." BU got smoked, 7-1, by a UMass-Lowell team that had scored only 15 goals in its prior five games, chasing Terrier goaltender Kieran Millan in the process. Perhaps even more disconcerting was that the Terriers managed only a single goal. Things don't get easier on Friday, when they face a Merrimack team that has surrendered only 10 goals in eight games, and is backstopped by reigning league defensive player of the week, goaltender Joe Cannata.
Expect MC's Flanigan and Mike Collins, who scored two power-play markers against NU, to be marked men when they line up against BU's defense. Conversely, BU's forwards, led by Matt Nieto (6 goals, 4 assists, 10 points) must solve Cannata, who comes into the game with mighty impressive numbers in both goals against (1.41) and save percentage (.939).
The Eagles, on the heels of what coach Jerry York called the team's most complete game (a convincing 5-1 home win over Maine), went out to Amherst last Saturday and laid an egg against the UMass Minutemen, 4-2. That loss cost BC its national No. 1 ranking, as Minnesota leapfrogged the Eagles (and four other teams) to take the top spot.
On Friday, BC locks horns with a Northeastern team that gave the Eagles fits last year. In perhaps some of the most entertaining games of the 2010-11 season, the Eagles beat Northeastern in an epic Beanpot final -- 7-6 in overtime -- and then tied the Huskies at home the following Friday, 7-7, before losing the next night, 2-1, at Matthews Arena. The two teams met up again in the Hockey East semifinals at TD Garden, with the Eagles prevailing, 5-4.
Friday's game at BC will also serve as an appetizer for the Jan. 14 Frozen Fenway outdoor match between the two squads at Fenway Park. That game will follow a Hockey East doubleheader at Fenway on Jan. 7, with Vermont playing Massachusetts and New Hampshire taking on Maine.
After the smoke clears from the Friday skirmishes, one of the country's best college hockey rivalries resumes on Sunday at BC's Conte Forum, when BC and BU clash for the 255th time. Jack Parker's Terriers currently have bragging rights in the all-time head-to-head match-up, 125-112-17, but the series is even closer during Jerry York's tenure behind the BC bench, with BU holding a razor-thin 34-33-8 edge.
However, it might be the Terriers who have the added incentive this time around. Last year, BC steamrolled its cross-town nemesis, winning all three league games by a combined 20-11 score, and bumping BU out of the Beanpot Tournament in the opening round with a 3-2 overtime victory. Should make for some Sunday afternoon (4 p.m. start time) fireworks. Expect a packed house for the show.
In other local college hockey action, ECACHockey squads Cornell and Colgate will visit Harvard's Bright Center to face off against a Crimson team (0-1-1) looking for its first win on Friday and Saturday, respectively. In Hockey East, UMass-Lowell (3-3-0; 1-2-0 HE) will try to build on the momentum of its BU win when the River Hawks travel to Maine (3-4-1; 3-3-0 HE) for a pair. Massachusetts (2-4-2; 1-4-2 HE) hosts Holy Cross and Northeastern on back-to-back nights, Providence (4-3-1; 4-2-0 HE) welcomes Alabama-Huntsville for two, and the suddenly-resurgent New Hampshire (4-4-1; 3-3-0 HE) Wildcats travel to take on struggling Vermont (1-5-0; 0-4-0 HE) on Saturday.