It all comes down to this.
With just two regular-season games remaining, the fate of a postseason berth for the Massachusetts hockey team will be decided, beginning Friday when UMass (12-15-5, 8-13-4 Hockey East) hosts No. 12 Merrimack at the Mullins Center.
Friday’s matchup against the Warriors (16-9-7, 12-8-5 HEA) will conclude the regular season for the Minutemen, as seniors Danny Hobbs, T.J. Syner, Michael Marcou and Kevin Moore will be honored.
“We’re in the pressure cooker right now,” said Hobbs of the postseason implications of this final weekend.
With its 20 conference points, UMass sits tied for the eighth and final spot among qualifying teams with Northeastern. If both the Minutemen and the Huskies remain tied in points after Saturday, the tiebreaker could come down to whether No. 8 UMass Lowell or No. 4 Boston University is the higher seed.
UMass would win the tiebreaker if the No. 4 Terriers, who sit in the second spot, finish higher than the No. 8 Riverhawks, who sit in third place, two points behind. If UML leapfrogs BU, then Northeastern would claim the final postseason seed for the tournament.
“We’ve been in a ‘highly alert’ type of mindset for the last three or four weeks, because each weekend something needed to be accomplished,” said UMass coach Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon of the unpredictable season.
The Minutemen have experienced nearly every emotion this season as they have lost in the final seconds and had amazing moments when the team nearly pulls everything together
Now, their season hangs by a thread.
“[We’ve worked to] give ourselves a chance and now we have that chance,” added Cahoon.
The Warriors (29 points) currently sit fifth in the conference standings, the same spot they were predicted to finish in the preseason coaches poll. They trail only No. 10 Maine (30 points) by one point for the fourth spot and the Riverhawks (31 points) by two, meaning that this Friday and Saturday’s home-and-home series has major implications for Merrimack.
The Warriors are currently on their worst stretch of the season, going 1-2-1 over the last four and 1-3-2 over the last six.
However, Merrimack won six straight at the start the season and nine of its first 10.
The Warriors are led in net by senior goaltender Joe Cannata. He has started 30 games this year, posting a 15-9-6 record while surrendering 2.14 goals per contest. Merrimack’s defense and goaltending has been a staple all season, as it allows 2.28 goals per game in conference play. Controlling the low area by the net will be a key component to UMass’ strategy.
“We did a good job last Saturday night [against New Hampshire] at creating screens, creating a net presence … and taking the goalie’s eyes away,” said Cahoon. “That’s absolutely essential against a goaltender like Cannata.”
Offensively, the Warriors rank ninth in conference play with 2.56 goals per contest, while the Minutemen rank fifth (three goals per game). Merrimack is led by junior’s Jesse Todd (11 goals, 25 points) and Ryan Flanigan (nine goals, 26 points). Fellow junior Karl Stollery (seven goals, 21 points) and freshman Mike Collins (seven goals, 20 points) have also contributed to Merrimack’s attack.
Friday’s game at the Mullins Center will start at 7 p.m. UMass will then travel to North Andover for Saturday’s game that starts at 7 p.m.
Scott Cournoyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MDC_Cournoyer.