Boston --This is a heart achingly crucial stretch for the Boston Bruins, but the tension didn't stop several Black & Gold players and staffers, very busy trying to secure their own playoff spot in the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup playoffs, from peeking at the match ups for this weekend's Hockey East Championship Tournament at the TD Banknorth Garden.
Former Boston Bruins goaltending coach and accomplished HEA Commissioner, Joe Bertagna, and the rest of the Hockey East Association will be on hand in the Hub of Hockey as the #1 seed in the conference, the University of New Hampshire, takes on #4 University of Massachusetts, at 5:00 p.m. Then in a rematch of this college season's Beanpot Tournament Final, #2 Boston College will take on bitter intra-avenue rival #3 Boston University at 8:00 p.m.
When asked about the collegiate tournament, none of the B's personnel had a real solid idea about who would skate away with the Hockey East crown on Saturday night.
Sure, having graduated (or having friends) from one of the semifinalists, they all had strong hopes and wishes, of course. But none seemed to have a definitive opinion -- save one. Each affiliate of the Black & Gold indicated that goaltending would play a big part towards any team skating around the Garden with the Lamoriello Trophy.
That's not too shocking, as masked men often dictate hockey playoffs at any level. However, this particular four-team set seems extremely solid in the paint.
"Their goaltender, (UMass') Jon Quick, is playing very well," said Bruins Manager of Hockey Administration, Ryan Nadeau, UMass '99, of his alma mater's netminder. "In a playoff like this, with a single elimination (format), they have a team to be reckoned with.
"The Minutemen are very well-coached. They play within themselves and they have some defensemen that keep it simple and move the puck. They were really, really effective against UMaine…and they really work well as a team.
"They also have some creative guys up front, who are opportunistic. And they are really playing well, right now," said Nadeau.
Mark Mowers, University of New Hampshire '98, feels pretty good about his former club's chances, too. When questioned about UNH head coach Richard Umile's methods at this time of the year, Mowers was quick to answer.
"I would say by (this time) everything was in place," he explained. "Back then we had a pretty high powered offense, so I know a lot of it was focused on transition…and just using our speed.
"And I know that they have some good offensive players there now, too. So I don't think that would have changed much."
Mowers has seen what the Wildcats are capable of, and feels like they have a really good shot at the title.
"I went up to the Whittemore Center once this year," said Mowers. "And I've seen three or four games on TV.
"The games that I've seen, they played pretty well…When they are on, they look pretty sharp.
"And obviously goaltending is the key, as it is for every team. But they have good goaltending (in Bruins draftee Kevin Regan) and the guys are working hard. I like their chances this weekend."
Brant Berglund, the Boston Bruins Video Coordinator (Boston University '01) said that BU's underdog status might give them an "advantage" this time around.
"I think it's an easier position (for BU head coach Jack Parker) to come from," said Berglund, who is also a proud former member of Parker's staff. "It's easier for him to address his players in that situation."
When asked about Dr. Parker's prescription for a Terrier victory over the Catamounts last week, noticing that the Terriers play better on the road, and then having them get ready for a game versus Vermont in a non-descript extra dressing room at Boston University's Agganis Arena, Berglund was not surprised.
He was not surprised at all.
"That is vintage Parker," said the B's captain video, chuckling. "He thinks outside of the box and mixes things up that way.
"I saw some stuff like that when I was there…and obviously it worked."
Speaking about the Terriers roster, Berglund feels like the Terriers are pretty solid throughout their lineup.
"They've got some good depth over there," said Berglund. "Defensively…Sean Sullivan is definitely a leader back there. He's physical and he sets the tone, that way. And he gets everybody up for the game.
"And they've got one of the best goalies in the country in John Curry. He stands on his head every night."
According to the large BC contingent in the Bruins locker room, Boston College's fortunes in the tournament seem to be similarly linked to the man on the goal line.
"I think it's always goaltending," said Bruins defenseman Andrew Alberts, when asked about the Eagles highly touted goalie, and Albert's former teammate, Corey Schneider. "When you look at the big games and what happens, whatever goalie comes up with the biggest saves, plays a sound positional game and doesn't give up the easy goal and keeps the boys on board (will win)."
"Obviously I hope (BC) will win," added Alberts, Boston College '05.
Bobby Allen, BC '01, described the importance of the Hockey East tournament.
"We always wanted to be playing our best hockey right around the Hockey East tournament," said the defenseman. "I was fortunate, in my four years we won three out of four (titles).
"So it was something that was really special.
"Hopefully the boys will be flying," he said.
Old friend Tom Fitzgerald, a former Bruins forward, now a respected member of the NESN studio team, and certainly the most objective observer in this piece, broke down the teams.
"They have really found their game…in the last week," said Fitzgerald of UNH. "They are probably the most high powered offensive team in Hockey East.
"UNH has been putting pucks in the net every single game."
Fitzgerald pointed to the UNH crease for one of the keys to their championship hopes.
"Last weekend, Kevin Regan played very well (against) Providence. They had a lot of prime chances but they just couldn't put the puck past him," said Fitzgerald.
"They are going against a team in UMass-Amherst that is a very disciplined team…they play a defense first mentality and they are getting contributions from a lot of players, throughout their lineup.
And again, there is the man between the pipes.
"Quick is definitely the backbone to UMass' success," added Fitzgerald. "(UMass head coach Don) 'Toot' Cahoon has already said that…and calls him his best athlete."
What about the battle of Commonwealth Ave, Fitzy?
"Does it ever get old?" asked Fitzgerald. "I don't think so."
"To me, that's Boston, that's the Hub of Hockey…these two teams, they recruit the same players year in year out. They're archrivals, it can never get old.
"You are going to see another great game, like you saw in the Beanpot."
What is the key in the game?
"It's going to come down to goaltending, again," he said.
There you have it, folks.
The experts in the game, biased or not, look to the goal crease as their barometer for success in this weekend's championship. And hopefully you will be there to see Quick, Regan, Curry and Schneider lead their teams onto the Garden ice in the hopes of taking home the coveted Lamoriello Trophy.