This is March. This is the month of triumph, heartbreak, sudden death, upsets and sometimes downright insanity. This is the time of year we live for as fans, players, coaches, media, whoever. The last several months were merely a setting of the March table. Now we get to feast.
The postseason officially kicked off with the first conference playoff game in the country between UMass and Vermont Thursday night. The Minutemen overcame a 2-0 deficit and scored a goal late in the first overtime to take a 1-0 series lead on the Catamounts in Hockey East’s 8-9 matchup. Star freshman Cale Makar scored on a beautiful end-to-end power play rush to tie the game in the third period, while Philip Lagunov scored with just four seconds remaining in overtime to win the game.
That’s a heck of a way to get us started. All conferences except the NCHC begin their tournaments this weekend with best-of-three series. Here’s a look at some of the many intriguing series on the schedule to open up the postseason this weekend.
All Sunday games are if necessary, all times ET
Minnesota at Penn State
Friday: 7 p.m. (Fox Sports North+)
Saturday-Sunday: 7 p.m. (Fox Sports North)
After sweeping the Gophers last weekend to flip home-ice in this series, the Nittany Lions face the difficult task of beating the same team four times in back-to-back weekends. Penn State holds the season advantage, going 3-1 against Minnesota with wide gaps between their regular-season series. Meanwhile, if the Gophers come into State College with some more fire and urgency, this whole thing could flip right back in their favor.
"When we see each other doing well and we're having a lot of fun on the ice, it's fun to come to the rink"— Penn State Men’s Hockey (@PennStateMHKY) February 28, 2018
Hear from @BarrattEvan & @bbiro22 heading into our B1G Quarterfinal series against Minnesota!!
Of the first-round series, there’s little doubt that this is one of the most interesting. Given the way the regular season ended, you’d think momentum and home-ice advantage are going to swing this Penn State’s way, but one can never be too certain when the calendar flips to March. Additionally, this series could carry some significant NCAA tournament implications as well, with the Nittany Lions on the bubble.
Quinnipiac at Yale
Friday-Saturday: 7 p.m., Sunday: 5 p.m.
This season may not have gone as either Quinnipiac or Yale had hoped, but that only increases the importance of this playoff series between rivals. These two clubs split their two regular-season meetings with the home team earning the W in each. Yale has been rolling a bit with six wins in their last eight, including a 3-2 home victory over the Bobcats. Quinnipiac, however, has been pretty solid in the ECAC first round over the years with a 16-2 record and no series losses in program history.
20th anniversary of Yale's first ECAC Championship to be celebrated this weekend at Whale. 1997-98 Bulldogs pic.twitter.com/sDICS16jHI— Yale Hockey (@Yale_Hockey) February 21, 2018
One of the big players to watch in this one is Quinnipiac freshman Odeen Tufto who has 14 multi-point games so far this season, including one in that 3-2 loss to Yale earlier this season. Those 14 multi-point games are the most by an NCAA freshman since Jack Eichel had 14 in his Hobey Baker season at Boston University.
Wisconsin at Michigan
Friday-Sunday: 7:30 p.m. ET
The Wolverines have been surging late in the season, currently riding a six-game unbeaten streak. It has them on the cusp of a national tournament berth and they have to believe at this point that a Big Ten conference tournament championship is within their reach. Standing in their way, however, is a Wisconsin Badgers team that has given Michigan some headaches this year.
The Badgers have won two of the four meetings in regulation, while winning a third in a shootout. They’re also the last team Michigan has lost to before going on this hot streak to close out the season. Wisconsin sophomore forward Trent Frederic will be one to watch in this series as he has nine points over the four meetings between these two teams.
UNH at Maine
Friday, 7:30 p.m. (NESN/Fox College Sports)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. (Fox College Sports)
Sunday, 4 p.m.
This series is going to get some added attention because of what it may mean for one of the coaches. New Hampshire will be looking to extend the final season for head coach Dick Umile at least another week when it travels to Orono. Umile, who has a 586-353-108 record in 27 seasons leading his alma mater, is set to retire at the end of the season.
Marcus Vela at today’s press conference ahead of the Hockey East playoffs! https://t.co/UV2ZuFD6IW— UNH Men's Hockey (@UNHMHOCKEY) February 28, 2018
Interestingly enough, all three games between these two teams during the regular season required overtime. The Wildcats tied Maine in a late January road series before falling to the Black Bears on home ice on Feb. 14. No matter what happens, this is going to be an emotional series.
Merrimack at UMass-Lowell
Friday: 7:15 p.m., Saturday: 7:05 p.m., Sunday: 4:05 p.m.
UMass-Lowell finds itself in an unfamiliar position, entering the Hockey East tournament as the No. 7 seed. The River Hawks have played in each of the last five Hockey East championship games, winning three of them. Their difficult road to keeping the streak alive starts with a familiar foe. These two teams also just met last weekend in a home and home series. Merrimack won 4-1 on home ice, but dropped a 5-0 decision at Lowell. That win for the River Hawks helped stop a precipitous slide as they had lost their previous five games consecutively.
Ferris State at Bowling Green
Friday: 8:07 p.m., Saturday-Sunday: 7:07 p.m.
Alabama Huntsville at Northern Michigan
Friday-Sunday: 7:07 p.m.
These two series are obviously meaningful in the WCHA playoffs, but Bowling Green and Northern Michigan have a chance to get themselves a little closer to an at-large NCAA tournament berth. Both teams essentially have to sweep to strengthen their cases according to Jim Dahl’s excellent College Hockey Ranked blog, but with both on home ice that distinct possibility exists. Northern Michigan is 17th in the Pairwise, while Bowling Green in 18th. In recent years, it hasn’t been often that WCHA series like these carried so much weight, but the nation should be keeping a close eye on them both.
St. Cloud State at North Dakota
Friday: 8:37 p.m., Saturday: 8:07 p.m.
Good times at the HBNHC tonight! @SCSUHUSKIES_MH celebrates the @TheNCHC 2018 Penrose Cup Championship with the Dog Pound! #unleashSCSU @NCAAIceHockey @collegehockey #StCloudState #StCloudMN pic.twitter.com/MXRAb8z92Q— SCSU Men's Hockey (@SCSUHUSKIES_MH) February 25, 2018
The NCHC regular season closes out with a doozy of a series. St. Cloud has already captured the regular-season title, and have a lock-tight grip on the No. 1 seed in the country presently. North Dakota, meanwhile, is in desperate need of padding their national tournament resume with at least one win over their conference’s top team. Currently 14th in the Pairwise, the Fighting Hawks find themselves at dropping further into jeopardy without some positive momentum. These two teams played a tight series at St. Cloud in December, with the Huskies earning a win and the Fighting Hawks nabbing an extra standings point with a shootout win. It may not have the drama of a conference tournament game, but it’s pretty close.
Also on TV this week:
Miami at Denver, Friday: 9:05 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)