Hockey East tourney an all-inclusive affair

For years, Hockey East was the exception among collegiate conferences due to its practice of excluding teams from its postseason tournament. It was an oft-repeated matter of pride that teams had to earn their way into the playoffs, with spots reserved only for the top eight squads. Nothing was guaranteed.

However, with the addition of Notre Dame this year and the league now numbering 11 teams, the league invited everyone to the playoff party. And that's set up an interesting dynamic heading into the second season.

Hockey East's top five teams -- Boston College, UMass-Lowell, Providence, New Hampshire and Northeastern -- will receive a bye next weekend. Only New Hampshire (19-16-1; 11-9-0 Hockey East) and Northeastern (18-12-4; 10-8-2 HE) know who their quarterfinal opponent will be, as the Huskies will travel to Durham, N.H., to take on the Wildcats. The two-week layoff, however, isn't sitting well with everyone at the top of the table.

BC coach Jerry York, following his Eagles' 2-1 overtime loss to Notre Dame on Saturday, was clearly disappointed with the new format, saying, "It puts us in an unusual situation" of dealing with a long dormant stretch just as postseason play gets under way. A fortnight without game action, said York, breaks up a team's rhythm.

"It's not great for all of us to sit out two weeks," he said. "You always like to play games. We were kind of hoping to play [next] weekend, but that's the way everybody voted."

Asked how he'll spend that time, York said he will sit down with his staff and "address some needs."

"We'll look at some specifics, almost like preseason training camp," he said. "We'll look at faceoffs, defending three-on-twos with a backcheck, all the small little things that we might not have the time for over the course of the regular season."

BC opponents might scoff at the notion that York's team needs tinkering. The No. 1 team in the nation, BC (25-5-4; 16-2-2 HE) has put together a dominating regular season -- the Eagles have Hockey East's top offense and top defense -- and has known for weeks that it had the league's top seed locked up. Last year's regular-season and tournament champion Lowell (21-9-4; 11-6-3 HE) and third-place Providence (19-9-6; 11-7-2 HE) punched their tickets to the top five in the past week.

Of those two, the Friars' Nate Leaman will definitely rue the possibility of lost momentum, after Providence traveled to Maine and brought back two wins against a Black Bears squad that has looked nearly unbeatable at home. UMass-Lowell, meanwhile, made the road trip to Burlington to face Vermont and managed a split, winning Friday in overtime before dropping Saturday's game, 3-2.

Perhaps the biggest loser this past weekend was Northeastern, which dropped a pair of decisions in a home-and-home series against Boston University and fell to No. 14 in the Pairwise Rankings. Those losses, combined with New Hampshire's win Saturday over Merrimack, also cost the No. 9 Huskies home-ice advantage in the quarterfinals. A quick exit from the playoffs could put Northeastern's bid for an at-large bid to the NCAAs at risk.

Looking ahead, the national Pairwise Rankings are again expected to play to key role in determining which teams make the NCAA field of 16. There are only six automatic bids, which are awarded to the tournament champions of the country's six major leagues. Any upset title winner, and the Atlantic Hockey champ (the league's highest ranked team is currently Air Force, at 35th), will mean fewer teams from the top 16 of the Pairwise Rankings will make the NCAAs.

Of the six Hockey East teams that are playing next weekend, only Vermont and Notre Dame are currently sitting in the "sweet 16" of the Pairwise Rankings. The other four have only one shot at making the NCAA tournament, and that is to claim Hockey East's automatic bid for the tournament champion. The following is the lineup for next weekend's single-game elimination round:

Merrimack (8-21-3; 3-15-2 HE) at Maine (15-13-4; 9-8-3 HE)

These two teams better bring their corner cut-men to this battle at Maine's Alfond Arena in Orono on Saturday. The squads have met in several quarterfinal rounds in recent years, and each one has been a donnybrook. Expect the same this time around, as the Warriors, the league's cellar dwellers, have to bring a street-fighter's mentality to Maine if they hope to keep their season alive. And even that might not be enough.

The Black Bears, under first-year head coach Red Gendron, have been stellar at Alfond, though they did drop two games at home this past weekend against a stout Providence club, leaving them with a 12-3-0 home record. The Black Bears are mired in a four-game winless streak, which can mean one of two things -- they're ripe for an upset, or they're hungry for a victory.

Wins have been few and far between for Mark Dennehy's Warriors, but they did manage a quality 4-2 victory over UNH this past Friday (snapping a seven-game losing streak), before dropping the rematch, 5-2. However, they don't have a single league road victory, and only a single victory away from Lawler Arena all season. The Warriors have the league's most anemic offense, scoring less than two goals per game. Getting a playoff win in Orono will be a tall order.

Boston University (10-20-4; 5-12-3 HE) at Notre Dame (20-12-2; 9-9-2 HE)

With their two victories over Northeastern this weekend, the Terriers were able to leapfrog Massachusetts into ninth place. Their reward is a trip to South Bend, Ind., and a Saturday date with perhaps the hottest team in Hockey East. The Fighting Irish have surrendered just a single goal in their past four games, including a pair of 2-0 victories over BU. If defense wins championships, Notre Dame is poised for a deep tourney run, especially with senior Steven Summerhays between the pipes.

"That's probably the most important thing going into the playoffs. He's back to where I think he's capable of. He's capable of playing like that every night," said Irish coach Jeff Jackson after Summerhays stonewalled high-octane BC in Saturday's 2-1 overtime win. "That's were it all starts. Your goaltender has to be a difference-maker in games like this. It's like a playoff game. That's a good starting point, knowing we have confidence in him. Everything starts from there."

BU will be encouraged by its eight-goal output against Northeastern in the two victories this weekend, but the Terriers have yet to prove that they can solve Summerhays and Notre Dame's air-tight defense. They'll need to in order to get back to the quarterfinals.

UMass (8-21-4; 4-13-3 HE) at Vermont (18-12-3; 10-10-0 HE)

UMass second-year coach John Micheletto returns to the familiar confines of Gutteson Fieldhouse this Friday, following his eight-year tenure as an assistant to UVM's Kevin Sneddon. Perhaps the bigger obstacle for Micheletto is that his Minutemen will be coming off their own two-week layoff, having last played against Providence on Feb. 21 and 22, dropping two one-goal decisions. In their past eight games, the Minutemen have managed only a single win, a 3-0 victory over Northeastern on Feb. 7. The one bright spot for UMass is a potent power play (second in the league), so Vermont will need to play disciplined hockey.

While UMass might be dealing with rust, Sneddon's Catamounts ought to be game-ready, coming off a rugged two-game series with UMass-Lowell, dropping one overtime match and winning their season finale, 3-2. Behind a vastly improved defense (2.09 goals against), Vermont has worked its way to the 12th spot in the Pairwise Rankings.

After the elimination round, the teams will be re-seeded for the following weekend, with BC taking on the lowest remaining seed, UMass-Lowell facing the next lowest, Providence versus the third, and Northeastern tackling New Hampshire.