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Familiar strangers

Last modified: 3/9/2012 12:00:00 AM
DURHAM - It's been three months since the University of New Hampshire and Boston University hockey teams last met. And my have things changed for both clubs.

The Wildcats, a tight-knit group off the ice, have regrouped from a terrible 0-4 start by playing playoff-style hockey, a philosophy the team adopted after a 2-1 loss to BU back on Dec. 8. The Terriers have had to endure several off-ice distractions, including two players (Corey Trivino and Max Nicastro) arrested on charges of sexual assault and a third (Charlie Coyle) who left the school to sign with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

The teams have certainly taken different paths to the Hockey East tournament, but tonight the two will be face-to-face in Game 1 of their best-of-three series.

"This should be a good series and a good matchup. They've obviously gone through some adversity," said UNH Coach Dick Umile, whose sixth-seeded Wildcats (14-17-3, 11-14-2 HE) will be on the road in the conference quarterfinals for the first time since 1996. "We've had an interesting season ... (but the) second half we played much better defensively and our goaltending has been very consistent."

"Our matchup with UNH is kind of weird because we haven't played them since December, and we're obviously a different team than we were in December, not only because everyone is different after playing and practicing as long as we have, but also because we've lost three key guys that were very instrumental to our first-half success," said BU Coach Jack Parker, whose third-seeded Terriers will host their eighth straight quarterfinal. "Those guys are no longer with us, so it's a different team that UNH will see this weekend."

On-ice and off-ice distractions aside, the history between these two storied programs certainly makes for an intriguing matchup despite the fact that the Terriers won all three regular-season matchups, outscoring the 'Cats, 11-2.

"We've got great tradition with (the Terriers)," Umile said. "I like that fact that it's UNH and BU. ... There's a lot of respect there."

The key to the series will likely come from special teams play. BU led Hockey East in penalty minutes, while UNH was the least penalized team in the league. The Wildcats have focused on their power play and penalty kill (BU's power play ranks second in Hockey East) during practice this week and are hoping to take advantage of the Terriers' penalty troubles.

"If we can cause them to take some bad penalties through our hard work that's nothing but a bonus for us," UNH senior defenseman Damon Kipp said.

The 'Cats are 5-for-23 (21.7 percent) on the man advantage since Feb. 3 - 5½ percent higher than their season average. If they can continue that success, maybe even be a little bit better, they will likely move on to the Hockey East semifinals for the second straight season - and one step closer to reaching the NCAA tournament.

"We're getting good looks and good scoring opportunities (on the power play)," Umile said. "We're going to be in a battle, stay down there three days if we have to and hopefully we'll be moving on to the (TD) Garden (in Boston) when it's all over."

Here's a look at the other three Hockey East quarterfinals this weekend (conference records in parentheses):

• No. 8 Massachusetts (9-14-4) at No. 1 Boston College (19-7-1)

The Minutemen went 2-1 against Eagles in the regular season, but both Massachusetts's wins came at home, where it won nine times compared with just twice on the road. It will have to equal that road win total if it's going to get past the No. 1 team in the country in BC, which is riding an 11-game winning streak.

"It's not your typical 1-8 matchup as far as we're concerned," BC Coach Jerry York said. "UMass is one of the few teams that took a season series from us. The Minutemen have our attention."

"We played them a couple games (at home) where we played them well," UMass Coach Don Cahoon said. "Playing at BC ... anything could happen."

• No. 7 Providence at No. 2 UMass Lowell

The Red Hawks avenged a loss earlier in the season to the Friars by closing out the regular season with back-to-back wins against Providence. Lowell is trying to advance to its first conference semifinal since 2009, while Providence is looking for its first trip to the Garden since 2001.

"They work extremely hard, they skate very well and they're probably one of the best forechecking teams we've faced in Hockey East this year," Lowell Coach Norm Bazin said. "We're certainly taking nothing for granted."

"We don't have a player on our roster that's ever played a playoff game," Providence Coach Nate Leaman said. "I think the guys are really chomping at the bit and looking forward to the opportunity."

• No. 5 Merrimack at No. 4 Maine

Once the top-ranked team in the country, Merrimack has struggled in the second half of the season, while Maine has flourished, winning 10 of its last 13 games. The teams split the season series, 1-1-1.

"We have our hands full obviously with Merrimack coming in," Maine Coach Tim Whitehead said. "This will be a real challenge for us, we are pleased to have earned home ice but we know it is going to be very tough."

"I would argue that (nobody had) a tougher second half in the country," Merrimack Coach Mark Dennehy said. "I know we will have our hands full headed up to Alfond (Arena), but I don't think there is anyone in our program that isn't really excited about it."

(Gavin Faretra can be reached at 369-3340 or gfaretra@cmonitor.com.)


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