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Hockey East Tournament 2011: Greg Cronin Returns To Northeastern As Huskies, BU, Maine Fight For Tournament Berths

The Hockey East playoffs start Thursday as Northeastern plays BU for the third time in six days, and continue throughout the weekend as Vermont visits UNH, UMass travels to BC and Maine heads to Merrimack.

Boston College is hoping for more magic from John Muse as the Eagles begin their quest for their third national title in four years.
Boston College is hoping for more magic from John Muse as the Eagles begin their quest for their third national title in four years.

Following his team's 3-0 defeat of Harvard in the first round of the Beanpot just five weeks ago, Northeastern coach Greg Cronin said that were his Huskies to win the tournament for only the fourth time since it started, the Northeastern Police Department wouldn't be enough to handle to rioting that would occur on campus.

A week later, a less enthusiastic Cronin took the same stand to face the media hordes after his team lost a thrilling Beanpot final to then-number one Boston College by a 7-6 tally in overtime. "Going into the game, I'm very much aware that we haven't won in 22 years and I was doing the Hail Mary and the Rosary and everything else to win the damn thing so we could get that cloud off our back," Cronin confessed, but it wasn't to be.

That was four weeks ago. When Cronin takes the bench Thursday night at Agganis Arena to lead the Huskies against Boston University, it'll be the first game he's coached since that Beanpot loss.

There are many subplots to this weekend's 2011 Hockey East playoffs, but Cronin's return is definitely one of the biggest. Northeastern's head coach was suspended by the university following a routine internal audit that revealed violations of recruiting protocol after the Beanpot, and Sebastien Laplante coached the team to a 2-2-2 record over six games versus top-fifteen opposition, including a 2-1 upset of Boston College just six days after the Beanpot championship.

The Huskies are the six-seed in this year's Hockey East tournament, and as a result have drawn the dubious distinction of starting the playoffs on the road -- the playoffs feature eight teams, and the four with the highest regular season point totals host the opening-weekend best-of-three series -- at hated BU, where it's not unlikely that the homestanding Terriers may feel like visitors in their own building as BU students head off to spring break while Northeastern fans should be out in full-force.

It doesn't seem like the marquee matchup of a playoffs that features the last three national champions (BU once, Boston College twice), but Northeastern and BU have played seven straight one-goal games (BU is 5-2 in those games, and 5-2 all-time against Northeastern in the Hockey East playoffs), and developed quite the ire for one another in the process. The return of Cronin -- who has successfully managed to pull Northeastern out of the shadows of their Comm Ave big brothers in recruiting and on-ice performance -- makes it a bigger event. The resurgence of a Northeastern squad that fumbled and bumbled their way through the first half -- including four straight home losses to Atlantic Hockey teams -- makes it bigger still.

It's a Northeastern team that relies on its seniors -- Wade MacLeod and Tyler McNeely, especially -- for offense, its freshmen -- Jamie Oleksiak and Luke Eibler among them -- for defense and tends to go as sophomore goaltender Chris Rawlings goes. Which, of late, is pretty good. The Huskies feature a lot of young talent in Brodie Reid, Cody Ferriero and more, but lack the depth that BU has. What they do have is energy and a physical game that's capable of knocking BU off of their finesse attack, especially if the Terrier leaders play as lackadaisical as they've looked. Jack Parker's team caught a lot of flack for its Beanpot performance, but prior to a 4-3 loss to end the regular season against Northeastern, BU hadn't lost in ten straight conference games. Freshmen Sahir Gill, Charlie Coyle, Matt Nieto and Adam Clendening will be responsible for most of BU's successes or failures this postseason, but it's a postseason that could be very short-lived as the Terriers sit on the NCAA bubble, and will need Kieran Millan to be strong in net and Alex Chiasson to continue his strong play at the wing. If Chris Connolly and Joe Pereira show up, it could be a long weekend for Northeastern. If they don't, expect the Huskies to take advantage by controlling tempo with their physical play.

But it's not the be-all, end-all matchup of the weekend. Just fifteen miles north, perennial title contender Maine heads to upstart Merrimack for a best-of-three series that could be more of a mixed-martial arts match than a hockey series. After all, when the two squads played two weeks ago and Maine took the whipping stick to Mark Dennehy's Warriors, it turned from shinny to, well, you know, pretty quickly. 173 penalty minutes were handed out in a 4-0 Maine win on Friday night, and 128 minutes were whistled in Saturday's 7-1 Black Bears drubbing of the Warriors.

It was a statement weekend for a Maine team that had struggled to find consistency in the back end all season long, and a statement weekend for a Merrimack squad that had cruised through the season near the top of the rankings in conference and that had climbed from unranked to top-five in the national polls. After going 0-4-2 over three weeks in January and February, including a heart-wrenching loss to hated rival UNH, Maine finished the season 6-0-1, the only imperfection coming when UMass came back from down 3-0 to earn a point they needed to get into the playoffs in the final game of the season. Merrimack, which had won eight in a row and 14 of 15 heading into the Maine series, finished the season 1-3-0 and barely maintained their grasp on home ice. It's fortunate that they did, because the Warriors went 12-2-2 at home this season and are 24-5-2 at Lawler Arena since 2009.

There's no doubt that Merrimack -- which will have leading scorer Stephane Da Costa back from a knee injury -- is going to be out for revenge. How they choose to get it will determine whether or not they make it to Boston for the semi-final round. The Warriors have developed a reputation in Hockey East as being a dirty team, one that takes chances to get advantages, but this season they've flourished as a defensively strong team that can score at will - six times this year they scored five or more goals, including an 11-goal outburst against UMass on February 5th. They've played very well in front of Joe Cannata, who finished the season second in the conference in wins to only Boston College's John Muse. But Maine exposed some chinks in the armor - namely that Merrimack isn't an extremely gifted skating team and can be beaten by teams that are able to get ahead of their forecheck and turn the neutral zone into a playground.

If the Black Bears expect to do that, they'll need a big weekend from Detroit Red Wings prospect and once-Hobey Baker candidate Gustav Nyquist, who's seen his early-season slump disappear as the days have gotten longer. They'll also look for Dan Sullivan to continue to be a rock-solid presence in net. Sullivan's been the main reason for the late-season surge, posting shutouts in three straight games and holding the vaunted Merrimack offense to only one goal in two games, setting the school record for longest shutout streak in the process. There's plenty of incentive for Maine, too - like BU, they sit on the NCAA bubble, and any number of wins over the ninth-ranked team in the country should help get them over the top.

Further north, golfing season is rearing its ugly head in Durham, NH, where second-seed UNH hosts seventh-seed Vermont in a rematch of last year's quarterfinals in which then-eighth seeded UVM bounced number one New Hampshire on the strength of two 1-0 wins on Saturday and Sunday. UNH is known for perenially underperforming once the calendar turns to March, and their start to the month -- dropping a 4-0 decision to BC in which they only mustered 12 shots on goal and a 4-3 game the next night after they led 2-0 -- doesn't bode well for what's ahead.

But this is a UNH team that's a year older, a year more experienced and a year hungrier. Star junior defenseman Blake Kessel -- yes, that Kessel -- hasn't been to Boston for a conference semi-final game in his two previous seasons. Neither has goaltender Matt Di Girolamo. Seniors Phil DeSimone, Paul Thompson and Mike Sislo comprise the Wildcats' first line, and not one has played in a Hockey East championship game, losing a triple-overtime game to Boston College in their only semi-final appearance in 2008.

It's also a UNH team that has gotten incredible production from its youngsters. Freshman Kevin Goumas was three times the conference rookie of the week in February; Di Girolamo's stepped into net after getting almost no time in his first two years and has performed superbly and sophomores John Henrion and Brett Kostonlansky have been dependable all season long.

None of their work can touch what Thompson has done, though. One of the leading candidate's for the Hobey Baker trophy as national player of the year (Miami's Andy Miele is his only real competition), Thompson has registered 49 points on 26 goals and 23 assists and leads the league in points per game at 1.44.

While UNH boasts five players that have scored more than 20 points, Vermont has two. The Catamounts, who went 0-2-1 against UNH this year including a 5-1 and 6-1 loss, lost star playmaker Wahsontiio Stacey in January and has been searching for someone to compliment Sebastian Stalberg's offensive abilities ever since. It goes without saying that they haven't had much luck; the Cats have only scored four or more goals four times since the new year, and two of those games were last weekend against bottom-dwelling Lowell.

But coach Kevin Snedden has a nose for getting the most out of his guys at this time of year, and if Rob Madore can show up big in net, expect Vermont to at least make it a long weekend for UNH if they can't make it their last weekend.

Boston College rides the tails of a four-point weekend against UNH into their home series with eighth-seed UMass, which did everything it could for a month to not make the playoffs, but got one point when they absolutely needed it, tying Maine 4-4 after trailing 3-0 in the final game of the season.

It's no surprise that BC is where they are. And it'll be a big surprise if they're not at TD Garden for next weekend's semi-finals. Even after losing star forward Chris Kreider to a broken jaw in Friday's game against UNH, the Eagles are still the deepest, biggest, strongest and probably fastest team in Hockey East. There may be faster teams, but none of them operate as well in transition as does Jerry York's team -- you can ask Cronin about that. John Muse has been strong if not stellar all season long in net, Tommy Cross has returned from an early-season knee injury to bolster a blueline that plays big and physical on the backcheck but isn't afraid to get out and skate, either, and Cam Atkinson, Brian Gibbons and Joe Whitney have had no trouble leading the offense into the upper echelons of all national rankings (3rd in scoring, 4th in defense, 6th on the power play, 4th on the PK).

Expect UMass to be overmatched, but not outdone. Despite being swept on the season by the Eagles, two of the UMass losses were by only a goal. T.J. Syner rides a nine-game point streak into the series, leading the Minutemen with 24 points in 27 league games. Michael Pereira is going to be a stud for the Minutemen, but only after a couple more years. Chase Langeraap will give everything that he has to extend his team's season, but he's only one man. And Paul Dainton is going to face a lot of rubber and it's highly likely that he'll watch a lot of it go past him as BC's high-octane attack should earn them Sunday off and a slot in the semis.