Tonight, college hockey fans will fill the TD Garden as Hockey East hosts their championship tournament. The four teams that have made it to the Garden include a newbie, a late bloomer, a perennial contender and a quiet threat. Who will advance to Saturday evening's championship game? In a season of late surprises in Hockey East, it may be anyone's contest.
Semifinal #1 - #1 Boston College versus #4 Northeastern
The Perennial Contender: Boston College
Boston College is looking to obtain their fourth Hockey East tournament title in six years this weekend. They will need to get through a Northeastern team that caused them fits over the middle week of February, when the teams met three straight times in the Beanpot final and two games of their regular season series. The Eagles are seeing amazing production from junior forward Jimmy Hayes, who scored his 20th goal of the season in last weekend's quarterfinals against UMass Amherst and fellow junior Cam Atkinson, who has been one of the nation's most productive scorers over the past two years. But where BC's strength may lie is in their defense, with defenders that are skilled on the blue line and have scoring opportunities, like sophomore Brian Dumoulin and junior Tommy Cross. And who can forget the poise of senior goaltender John Muse in big game situations - the un-drafted goalie has two national championships under his belt, adapted his game after a rough 2008-09 season, and is having what head coach Jerry York called "his best year." BC doesn't need to win this weekend to continue - their NCAA tournament ticket was stamped a long time ago.
The Late Bloomer: Northeastern University
In October, Northeastern found themselves losing to lower tier Atlantic Hockey teams and struggling to find any spark offensively. In February, the Huskies showed leadership, offensive prowess and strength in net from both shutout happy sophomore Chris Rawlings and unheralded freshman Clay Witt. Northeastern made it to the tournament semifinals thanks to seniors Steve Silva, Wade MacLeod, Tyler McNeely and Mike Hewkin stepping up both on the ice over the past few weeks and off, when head coach Greg Cronin was suspended due to recruiting violations. Cronin returned in time for the playoffs, and has been welcomed back with strong performances from freshmen defenseman Jamie Oleksiak and forward Brodie Reid. Northeastern needs to keep winning to keep their season going - their slow start has them unable to obtain an at-large bid.
Semifinal #2 - #2 New Hampshire versus #3 Merrimack
The Quiet Threat: University of New Hampshire
The University of New Hampshire is looking to redeem themselves after dropping the Hockey East regular season title after their final regular season series of games against Boston College. Though getting to the Hockey East semifinals was their overarching goal all along, after not making it to the Garden since 2008. Our guys were determined to get to Boston; our seniors…made it happen," said head coach Dick Umile in a conference call earlier this week. With two of the league's top five scorers in senior forwards Paul Thompson and Mike Sislo, New Hampshire has the offensive firepower to dominate most teams they face. They also are seeing increased contributions from their second line of freshman Kevin Goumas, junior Mike Borisenok and junior Stevie Moses, who are creating opportunities all over the ice. What can't be overlooked is the play of junior goalie Matt Di Girolamo, whose lack of playoff experience hasn't been a problem for a goalie known for his consistency. UNH will most likely make the NCAA tournament even if they don't win out the weekend, but the motivated Wildcat seniors are hoping for a title.
The Newbie: Merrimack College
Merrimack has been building to this semifinal appearance for several years. Head coach Mark Dennehy has turned around a team that had not made noise nationally since winning the Division II National Championship in the 1970s. College hockey fans knew the Warriors would be a force this season, but who would have known that it wouldn't all be on the skate blades of Stephane Da Costa? With giant contributions to the score sheet from senior Chris Barton, junior Ryan Flanigan, and freshman Mike Collins, the Warriors were able to weather the storm when Da Costa was out with an injury a month ago. They manhandled a preseason favorite Maine team with Hobey Baker finalist Gustav Nyquist last weekend, closing out the series in two games, including a 6-2 domination last Saturday evening. Even if the Warriors can't get past a loaded UNH team tonight, this will not be the end of their season - the Warriors will most likely receive a NCAA tournament at large bid thanks to their current 6th place spot in the Pairwise rankings.