The 2021-22 Hockey East season has unfolded so far in ways both expected and unexpected.
Expected: NCAA champion Massachusetts, picked first in the league’s preseason coaches’ poll, currently sits one point out of the top spot. Northeastern and Providence, picked fourth and fifth, respectively, have been in the top half of the standings for most of the year.
Unexpected: UMass Lowell, predicted to finish seventh, is at the top of the standings, while Boston University and Boston College, picked second and third, are just barely over .500 overall.
Then there’s Merrimack and New Hampshire. Both were picked to finish near the bottom of the pack, but recent hot streaks have put them in the conversation both league-wide and nationally.
Start with Merrimack, which found itself ranked No. 18 in the latest DCU / USCHO.com poll at 12-10-1 (7-7-0 Hockey East). The Warriors impressed the voters with two straight sweeps of ranked opponents – No. 17 Providence and No. 14 Lowell. Going into Tuesday night’s game at Connecticut, Merrimack was 6-1-0 since the start of 2022, its only loss in that stretch coming at UMass (4-3 final) on Jan. 3.
UNH (12-11-1, 6-8-1) is 5-1-0 in its last six games, outscoring opponents 25-10 in that stretch. The Wildcats took four of six points at UConn over the weekend, extending their winning streak to five before falling in overtime Saturday night. UNH even got some love from poll voters, earning a pair of No. 20 votes (including one from yours truly).
To say Merrimack coach Scott Borek is unimpressed would not be entirely accurate, but it’s fair to say he’s not dwelling too much on his team’s recent success, or what it could mean for the Warriors’ NCAA tournament hopes.
“You look ahead, you’re going to get killed in the present,” he said. “It’s not something we pay attention to. We have not paid attention to what place we’re in. We’re just trying to win our next game.
Merrimack’s special teams have been particularly impressive of late – in the Lowell series, the Warriors scored four times on the power play and killed five penalties.
“I think that’s confidence,” Borek said of his power-play unit. “Earlier in the year, when we were struggling on the power play, it almost seemed like (we) find a way to get it blocked – hit someone on the shin pads, or you shoot it wide. You do not have a great net-front presence because you’re trying to play the game in open ice.
“I think it’s moving in a really positive direction,” he added. “It’s as much confidence as it is structure. If we continue going in that direction, it’s really positive. ”
UNH struggled mightily to score at the beginning of the season, but coach Mike Souza thinks his Wildcats have turned it around with what he calls “scoring by committee.”
“It was not necessarily that we were playing poorly, we were just having a hard time putting the puck in the net,” Souza said on the latest “USCHO Spotlight” podcast. “That made our life a little easier, taking some pressure off everybody.”
The latest PairWise rankings as of Tuesday morning had Merrimack sitting at No. 14 and UNH at No. 29. Souza said he thinks the strength of Hockey East as a league will mean at least four teams will get to the NCAA tourney’s 16-team field. UNH currently stands ninth in the conference standings but are just five points out of the top spot.
Translation: The Wildcats have legitimate reason to believe they could be tournament bound in March.
“We’re all chasing to be in that top four,” Souza said. “It seems like if you’re a top-four team in our league, you end up in the NCAA tournament. That’s certainly a goal of ours. ”
Both teams are off this weekend, but fittingly will resume their schedule against each other in North Andover, Mass., On Feb. 4.