Once in a while, a playoff matchup comes along that is wonderfully intriguing.
All four Hockey East quarterfinal matchups have interesting plot lines, but none as captivating as fifth-seeded Maine’s best-of-three series at No. 4 Merrimack College.
Mark Dennehy’s Merrimack Warriors are the Cinderella story in college hockey.
The Warriors, who joined Hockey East for the 1989-90 season, had never finished higher than fifth and, prior to finishing sixth a year ago, had wound up ninth or 10th in the previous five seasons.
Maine is trying to regain its place among the nation’s elite. Maine had made nine straight NCAA Tournament appearances before missing the NCAA tourney the past three seasons.
A disappointing regular season, marred by key injuries and late-game collapses, has left the Bears with the unenviable task of having to win a quarterfinal series on the road in a sold-out Lawler Arena to stay alive for an NCAA berth.
To their credit, the Black Bears have played their best hockey down the stretch and they are the hottest team in the conference entering the playoffs with a seven-game unbeaten streak (6-0-1).
There are plenty of similarities between the two teams.
Both programs have been jump-started by a dynamic European forward.
Maine junior right winger Gustav Nyquist was a Hobey Baker Hat Trick (final three) finalist a year ago and has been on a tear of late with points in nine of his last 10 games (10 goals, 6 assists). Merrimack sophomore center Stephane Da Costa is a French Olympian who was the Hockey East Rookie of the Year last season.
They are leading their teams in scoring as Nyquist has 46 points (17 & 29) in 34 games while Da Costa has 39 points (14 & 25) in 28 games.
Each one is dangerous every time he steps on the ice thanks to his talent, creativity and guile.
Both teams have three point-producing defensemen: Maine has Will O’Neill (4 & 16), Josh Van Dyk (3 & 15) and Jeff Dimmen (6 & 9) while Merrimack has Karl Stollery (5 & 19), Jordan Heywood (2 & 13) and Brendan Ellis (2 & 12).
Both teams are also two of the most penalized teams in the country as Merrimack is the most penalized (21.1 penalty minutes per game) while Maine is fifth (17.9). However, neither team can afford to take too many penalties since Merrimack has the country’s 11th best power-play percentage (22.2 percent) and Maine has converted on 7 of its last 17 chances to move up to 21st (19.0 percent).
Each has tremendous motivation.
Merrimack, all but assured of an NCAA tourney berth, will look to avenge its only two-game losing streak of the season, 4-0 and 7-1 losses in Orono two weekends ago. Merrimack also doesn’t want to sit idle for two weeks before the NCAA tournament.
Maine must win to keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive.
And Maine’s seniors certainly don’t want to become the first class since the class of 1986 to miss the NCAA tournament all four years.
The goaltending matchup is tilted in terms of experience as Merrimack junior Joe Cannata has 81 games under his belt and Maine freshman Dan Sullivan has just 19. But Cannata has been yanked in three of his last four starts, allowing 14 goals on 67 shots in 117 minutes, 44 seconds.
Prediction: Maine plays inspired, desperate hockey but the home-ice advantage and the experienced edge in goal enables Merrimack to survive by winning Game 3 in overtime.