With three weekends of play left in the regular season, the race for playoff positioning in Hockey East is closer than it has ever been. Just 5 points separate the top nine teams in the conference. Only the top eight will qualify for the conference tournament, with the top four gaining home-ice advantage in the quarterfinals.
“This is as good a pennant race as I’ve seen, because of a multiple number of teams that are still involved,” said Jerry York, now in his 26th season as Boston College’s coach. “And it’s that whole other race for who gets in the playoffs. I think that adds a lot of intrigue and balance up and down the league.”
Every week of play brings an opportunity for a team to separate from the pack, or for a team to fall back. But to this point, it hasn’t happened.
Northeastern coach Jim Madigan is in his ninth season with the Huskies, but points out that he was a senior skating for NU in 1984-85, the inaugural season of Hockey East.
“Never have I seen it this bunched up,” Madigan said. “It’s going to be a dogfight all the way until the end. We’ve just got to keep battling and take it one game at a time. And that’s been our mind-set and mentality the last few weekends here.”
No. 6 BC (19-8-1, 12-6) and No. 10 Northeastern (17-8-3, 10-7-1) might be hard-pressed to pull away when they face off in a home-and-home series starting Thursday night at Matthews Arena. Both teams are coming off weekend sweeps, with BC dispatching Merrimack and Northeastern earning 4 points against UMass Lowell.
Freshmen Alex Newhook and Matt Boldy paved the way for the Eagles. Newhook was named the conference’s Player of the Week after registering four goals and four assists in BC’s three wins. Boldy took Rookie of the Week honors with three goals and four assists. They skated on the second line with classmate Mike Hardman.
“The freshman line is really starting to come,” York said. “I didn’t want to put them together early in the year, but right now they’re just on fire. They make good plays, they skate hard, and I think they’re going to be a big plus for us as we go down the stretch drive here.”
Northeastern goalie Craig Pantano was named Defensive Player of the Week after stopping 54 of 55 shots in the two wins against the River Hawks. The Huskies prevailed in the second game despite being without leading scorer Tyler Madden (19 goals, 18 assists), who was struck by a puck toward the end of Friday night’s win at Lowell. The Hobey Baker candidate’s timeline for a return is 2-3 weeks, meaning he likely is done for the regular season but could be back for the conference tournament.
While he would prefer to have Madden back for this week’s top-10 battle, Madigan did see a silver lining to the injury, crediting the senior leadership for stepping up and associate head coach Jerry Keefe for finding ways to make up for Madden’s absence on the power play and the penalty kill.
“The great thing that came out of that win was learning how to play without Tyler,” Madigan said. “When you lose a key player who is involved in every aspect, you’ve got to learn to distribute those minutes, so Coach Keefe got more forwards involved, and they picked up those minutes.”
The Huskies might get a boost by the return of senior Matt Filipe (6 goals, 13 assists), who missed the last three games because of an upper-body injury. The Lynnfield native has participated in practice this week, and Madigan said he was on track to play in Thursday night’s game.
Ties fit Harvard
Harvard (11-8-6, 9-4-5) hits the road this weekend to face No. 5 Clarkson (22-6-2, 15-3) and last-place St. Lawrence (3-23-4, 1-16-1). A pair of ties last weekend kept the Crimson in fourth place in the ECAC, which would be good enough to earn a bye and home ice in the conference tournament quarterfinals.
There’s another battle of ranked teams in Hockey East this weekend. No. 8 UMass (18-9-2, 11-6-2) and No. 14 UMass Lowell (15-9-5, 9-6-4) meet in a home-and-home series, beginning Friday night at Tsongas Arena. The Minutemen were inactive last week after sweeping Providence Feb. 7-8 to tie BC atop the conference standings.
UMass Lowell entered last weekend’s series against Northeastern with a chance to take sole possession of first place, but after being swept by the Huskies, the River Hawks find themselves tied for fourth and on the bubble for an NCAA bid with a PairWise ranking of 14.
“We just made our life a little harder,” said UMass Lowell coach Norm Bazin. “We’ve got to stick together and deal with the adversity. That’s the way life goes. We’ll regroup. We’ve got a lot of character in the room, and I do believe in this group. So we’ll have to face this head-on.”
Boston University (12-9-8, 9-5-5) is 1 point out of first place after last week’s sweep of New Hampshire (15-13-2, 9-10-1). Sam Tucker got the start in net for both games and responded by stopping 69 of 71 shots for the Terriers, who hit the road Friday to open a home-and-home series against UConn (12-13-4, 9-8-2).Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney.