The middle of the pack can be a pretty terrifying place to be at this time of year.
Every playoff position is still up for grabs in Hockey East, and a particularly tight grouping makes the standings a fluid thing each weekend. In March, the difference between fourth and sixth place is literally measured in miles traveled for playoff series, but when fourth-place Maine traveled to sixth place Northeastern on Saturday, the margin between them was a scant three points.
So while nothing was decided in the 3-3 tie, it was a fitting result for two teams that need every point they can get, but who both seem to be playing some of their best hockey as the games start to really mean something.
Maine came into the game off a pair of wins, including a 4-1 victory over Boston College a week earlier, but two weeks before the Black Bears took the ice at Matthews Arena, they were blown out in a 7-1 laugher at Merrimack — a performance that left coach Tim Whitehead without a single positive thing to say about his squad.
Saturday’s game confirmed that Whitehead’s players are starting to get the message from that performance.
“I certainly hope so, yeah,” he said. “We’re practicing and playing real well right now, so we just want to take it week by week. I think it’s a little early to say that for sure, these are college athletes and it’s hard to sustain that focus and compete level every single minute throughout the year, but that’s our objective.”
On the other end of the ice, the Huskies have been arguably the league’s hottest team since everyone came back from the holiday break, with four wins and a tie in six games since putting to bed a first half that saw them sitting at 3-9-4 overall and seventh in Hockey East with a 3-6-3 league record.
Northeastern might only be one spot higher in the standings, but at 7-10-5 overall and 6-7-4 in the league, it bears little resemblance to the squad that stumbled through the first half of the season.
“I think we’ve just got a lot of confidence now, every night the guys coming out of the dressing room, we know we can beat any team,” said senior Wade MacLeod, who provided a dramatic game-tying goal Saturday with 2:36 left in regulation. “That’s what we needed. We had a lack of that in the beginning of the year, games like this didn’t go our way.”
NU assistant coach Albie O’Connell (Watertown, Mass.) pointed to the team’s rookies in looking for a reason for recent success.
“I think we just got some experience, guys were refreshed for the second half,” said O’Connell, a Boston University alumnus. “Guys like Brayden Pimm, Rob Dongara, Brodie Reid have really taken their game to a higher level; Cody Ferriero’s skating harder; and the play of our three freshman D has been very good.”
NEHJ Player of the Week
Paul Dainton, sr., UMass
Dainton made 52 saves on 54 shots over the weekend, including the first shutout by a Minuteman goaltender in three years Saturday as UMass split a key two-game set with Vermont, keeping the Minutemen three points ahead of eighth-place Providence.
UMass at Northeastern, Friday; Northeastern at UMass, Saturday
The two-game home-and-home set between the Minutemen and Northeastern could have serious playoff ramifications. And if the Huskies get some momentum off of salvaging the tie with Maine, it should be an interesting clash with a team looking to hold on to seventh.
Around Hockey East
Junior Paul Carey (Weymouth, Mass.) had the Eagles’ third goal in Saturday’s 5-3 win over UMass-Lowell, giving him 10 goals and 23 assists for the season, which matches his total point haul of last season. It’s also the most goals he’s scored in any season at the Heights.
Freshman Garrett Noonan (Norfolk, Mass.) scored his first collegiate goal in the Terriers’ 3-2 loss to BC Friday night. … Noonan’s classmates Charlie Coyle (East Weymouth, Mass.), Sahir Gill and Adam Clendening are all in the top five among the league’s freshman scorers — Coyle first, Gill third and Clendening fourth.
The goalie rotation among Dan Sullivan, Shawn Sirman and Martin Ouellette has been moderately successful in Orono, where the Black Bears have three goaltenders with at least three wins for the first time since 1984-85.
Special teams have been a key to UMass’ surge from an 0-6-1 start to going 6-6-1 over its last 13 games. The Minutemen penalty-killers have kept opposing power plays off the board in five of the past seven games, and the power-play units have eight goals in 32 attempts during that stretch.
With Friday’s 6-4 win over Merrimack, the River Hawks brought to an end the program’s longest losing streak, a 13-game slide that spanned 76 days. It was also UML’s first win over a ranked opponent this season.
The Warriors’ six-game win streak that was snapped Friday was the program’s longest since joining Hockey East in 1988. … Saturday’s win over BU gave Merrimack its first season series over the Terriers since 2000-01, and the Warriors have won the series against BU and BC in the same season for the first time in history.
The Wildcats’ loss to BU Saturday was their first at home in the Whittemore Center in 27 games, dating back to another loss to BU, on Jan. 24, 2009. … Paul Thompson (Derry, N.H.) scored his fourth game-winning goal Friday in overtime against Providence, putting him in a tie with BU’s Alex Chiasson for the league lead. It also put him atop the league’s overall goal-scoring chart alongside BC’s Cam Atkinson (Greenwich, Conn.), each with 17.
Goaltender Chris Rawlings ran his streak without surrendering a goal to 167 minutes, 12 seconds before Maine’s Brian Flynn (Lynnfield, Mass.) scored in the second period Saturday. That included consecutive shutouts against Vermont and Harvard, making Rawlings the first Huskies netminder to pitch two in a row since Keni Gibson in December 2003.
Senior Matt Germain (Rockland, Mass.) hit a career high in goals Saturday with his sixth, which came in his second two-goal effort of the season. Classmate Kyle MacKinnon also matched his career best goal output (12).
Before getting lit up to the tune of a 5-0 deficit by UMass on Saturday, junior Rob Madore was 4-1-1 all-time against UMass with a 1.57 goals-against average, and had come off a stretch of 356 minutes without a 5-on-5 goal allowed.
Andrew Merritt can be reached at email@example.com