For the first time during their five seasons in Hockey East, the University of Vermont Catamounts are on the verge of failing to qualify for the league’s tournament.
Throughout most of the Hockey East season, the Catamounts have sputtered along, never gaining momentum, never crashing to a full stop. They tiptoed around the .500 mark, never surpassing it but always staying in a position where a nice run could propel them into the top four to guarantee themselves a home quarterfinal series.
In the last three weeks, the lose one/win one scenario crashed. Between injuries, blown third-period leads, critical mistakes and an on-the-rise challenger in Merrimack, the Catamounts have sunk into ninth place, one position out of the playoffs, and the road back is filled with obstacles that might prove to be insurmountable.
Beginning with the second home game against Maine on Jan. 30, here’s a capsule of the Catamounts’ fall from contention: leading 4-2 vs. Maine in third period, 4-4 tie; tied last-place Providence, 1-1; leading 2-1 vs. Merrimack with five minutes remaining, 2-2 tie; leading 2-1 vs. Merrimack with two minutes remaining, 3-2 defeat; leading New Hampshire 3-2 after two periods, 3-3 tie.
That’s nine points the Catamounts had in their grasp late in games; they held on to just four. Even three of those lost five points would have improved UVM’s condition immeasurably.
Instead, with four games remaining, they trail Merrimack by a single point, but realistically it’s two since if the Catamounts wind up tied with the Warriors, Merrimack has the head-to-head tiebreaker; more reason why that weekend vs. the Warriors was so disastrous.
They also trail Massachusetts and UMass-Lowell by only two points and UVM has one game-in-hand on UMass. Plus, if UVM can stay within two points of the Riverhawks, then Vermont’s season-ending series at UML could determine which team gets in as the No. 8 seed and which doesn’t.
However, for any scenario in which Vermont catches some team above it, the Catamounts must produce points. That won’t be easy this weekend with Boston University coming to The Gut. The Terriers have motivation of their own since their grip on fourth and home ice for the quarterfinals is slippery; BU has a one-point edge over Northeastern and the Terriers and Huskies wrap up the regular season against each other.
That’s why the weekend series at New Hampshire was so emotionally devastating to UVM. For all the character and resilience the Catamounts showed despite injuries and the aftermath of the Justin Milo affair, Vermont came home with only a single point when it probably deserved more.
Given the respective schedules remaining, UVM is up against it. Lowell faces last-place Providence this weekend; Merrimack catches the Friars on the final weekend. The best shot might be to catch slumping Massachusetts, which plays its final three games at Boston College and Maine (two games).
It’s not over, but it might be if Vermont doesn’t get a few points this weekend.
The remaining regular-season schedules for teams 5 through 9 in Hockey East:
5. Northeastern (11-11-1, 23 points): UNH, at UNH, at BU, BU;
6t. Lowell (10-11-2, 22): Providence, at Providence, UVM, UVM;
6t. Massachusetts (11-13-0, 22): at BC, at Maine, at Maine.
8. Merrimack (10-11-1, 21): at BC, Maine, Maine, at Providence, Providence.
9. Vermont (7-10-6, 20): BU, BU, at Lowell, at Lowell.