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Previewing this weekend’s Hockey East playoff games

While the University of New Hampshire hockey team skated off the Lawler Arena ice celebrating a comeback win in the regular-season finale, the Merrimack Warriors headed for the locker room with their heads down, forced to deal with another difficult defeat in a season of disappointments.

The loss dropped Merrimack to 8-21-3, with a 3-15-2 Hockey East mark. In previous years, that’s where the story would end.

This year, the Warriors – and the rest of the conference’s have-nots – still have a chance to make it a season to remember.

While the top portion of the 11-team Hockey East gets the week off, the bottom six will face off in the one-game, winner-take-all first round of the conference’s tournament, starting tomorrow when No. 10 Massachusetts visits No. 7 Vermont. The round finishes Saturday when No. 9 Boston University visits No. 8 Notre Dame and No. 11 Merrimack visits No. 6 Maine.

The inclusion of Notre Dame forced a change to the postseason format, and made it more beneficial to the teams struggling through a down season. Originally, eight teams made the tournament, while the bottom two had to call it a year. Now, Merrimack, Massachusetts and Boston University (incidentally, the only three teams in Hockey East with losing conference records) get a last at-bat. All three have had miserable seasons, and each of the three – if they just keep winning – could make it to the quarterfinals, to the TD Garden for the conference semifinals, and even beyond.

It’s a chance to salvage the season for those three teams. But for their opponents, due to the one-game format, it’s a trap. And the coaches who avoided it are thankful they did.

“(In) single elimination, a goalie stands on his head, bad bounce, whatever,” UNH’s Dick Umile said. “Anything can happen.”

Three teams will advance, and their seedings will determine who plays No. 1 Boston College, No. 2 UMass Lowell and No. 3 Providence (No. 4 UNH is already locked into a series with fifth-seeded Northeastern). Here’s a breakdown of those series going in.

No. 11 Merrimack at No. 6 Maine

Coaches often stress the importance of securing home ice, and this series is a perfect example why. Merrimack, at 1-13-2, has had no success on the road this year, and it got a terrible draw in the Black Bears, who have been awful (1-10-3) on the road but turn into a juggernaut (12-3-0) when playing in front of their rabid fans at intimate and loud Alfond Arena.

The season offered hope that the Warriors can steal an upset, however. Merrimack already travelled to Orono in mid-February and gave the Black Bears all they could handle, never trailing by multiple goals during a pair of one-goal losses and even taking a tie score into the third period in the second game, a 3-2 defeat.

The key for the Warriors will be getting a spark from an offense that is the fourth worst in the country in terms of goals per game. The environment at Alfond makes a fast start imperative, and Maine sports a steady offense (led by Devin Shore, who’s 10th in the country in assists with 27) that will make the Warriors pay if they can’t pull it off.

No. 10 Massachusetts at No. 7 Vermont

It took a while for the buzz to build around the Catamounts, but since Feb. 7, there’s little Vermont’s done to indicate it’ll be an easy postseason out.

That was the day the Catamounts showed up at the Whittemore Center for a series with UNH that had the potential to lift the Wildcats into the national tournament picture. Instead, Vermont was the dominant team, trouncing UNH, 5-2, before taking a 2-1 Saturday victory to complete the sweep.

Since then, the Catamounts (No. 15 nationally) have continued to play well. They were edged in a pair of games during Boston College’s 19-game unbeaten streak, then swept Merrimack before losing in overtime to and beating UMass Lowell in the final series of the season.

Vermont has talented forwards in Chris McCarthy and Mario Puskarich, but its strength has been on defense. Brody Hoffman (eighth-best 2.01 GAA) has blossomed in his sophomore season, and leads a defense that ranks 10th in the country in goals allowed per game.

Vermont swept UMass back in November, and there’s little reason to expect Hoffman and the Catamounts to have much trouble this time as well – unless they get careless on the ice.

The Minutemen ranked 52nd out of 59 teams in offense, but have the country’s seventh-best power play. They’ve been ice cold recently, with one win since January and two since mid-December, but they’re a different team with the man advantage. A lapse in discipline can cost any favorite, and that’s especially true with Vermont in this series.

No. 9 Boston U. at No. 8 Notre Dame

Both the Terriers and Fighting Irish enter this game on a high. BU concluded a rough first season in the post-Jack Parker era with a sweep of No. 14 Northeastern, while Notre Dame finished its slate by doing what no team had done since November and beating Boston College.

That’s where the similarities end, however. Notre Dame ranks 11th in the country with a 20-12-2 overall record, and BU’s had just as tough a time out of conference, with a 10-20-4 mark. Adding to the discrepancy, as is the case with the Maine/Merrimack matchup, are the home and road splits: Notre Dame is 15-5-1 in South Bend, while BU is 1-11-1 away from Agganis Arena.

The Terriers’ one road win came in their last try, however, and that series against Northeastern may have been a turning point for the annual power. BU was 7-6-1 at the end of November, then lost 14 of 18 games to sink in the standings before putting forward two games of the kind of play Coach David Quinn had insisted his team was capable of.

BU’s allowed a Hockey East-worst 110 goals in conference play, but the Terriers’ main concerns Saturday will be on offense. Notre Dame sports the country’s fourth-stingiest defense, allowing only 2.00 goals per game, and its biggest asset has been goalie Steven Summerhays, who ranks in the top 10 in goals against, save percentage and minutes played, and whose seven shutouts (including a pair of 2-0 wins over BU) are the most in college hockey. He’s also been blistering of late, giving up one goal in his last four games, and the senior will look to keep his roll going in Notre Dame’s first Hockey East playoff game.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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