What it wanted most out of this weekend at the Garden — its first Hockey East title — Merrimack’s striving varsity didn’t get.
“Very disappointed,” coach Scott Borek said after Boston University came from behind twice to beat the Warriors in overtime on Lane Hutson’s laser from somewhere near Charlestown. “We came here to win it.”
But the Warriors got the next best thing, the opportunity to keep playing in March and maybe beyond. When St. Cloud beat Colorado College in the NCHC final, Merrimack earned an at-large spot in this week’s NCAA tournament for the first time in a dozen years.
“I really believe this team deserves to continue to play,” said Borek, whose team was on the bubble when the evening began. “We won 23 games this year. If we’re not in the national tournament, then there’s something wrong with the PairWise. That’s how I feel about it.”
All that two double-overtime playoff triumphs in a row and an OT loss to the regular-season champions got Merrimack was a definite maybe.
Losing to BU put the Warriors in livin’-on-a-prayer mode along with Cornell and Alaska, hoping that a trio of outliers didn’t win their conference titles and cost them at-large invitations to the 16-team field.
The odds were decent that Merrimack, which prevailed over UMass-Lowell, 2-1, in Friday’s semifinal to move up to 13th in the rankings, would get in. Either a victory by Harvard in the ECAC final or by St. Cloud would do it.
Otherwise, the Warriors would have hit the golf course early and Hockey East would be limited to one NCAA entrant (BU) for the first time since the conference made its post-season debut in 1985.
“It’s a unique year for Hockey East,” observed Borek, whose charges had won seven straight outings to stay in the conversation. “Usually you come here and three teams are already going to the national tournament.”
That’s generally been the minimum. In 2016, half a dozen Hockey East teams earned spots. That seemed possible at New Year’s, but the contenders began dropping games and sinking in the PairWise rankings that mirror the formulas that determine the NCAA entrants.
“We went from a situation where we were four, five, or six teams looking good and we had this two- week stretch and came out on the other side with half of what we went into it with,” said commissioner Steve Metcalf. “Eight of our 11 had a bad result or two or three.”
Such is the downside of top-to-bottom parity, which has become Hockey East’s defining quality. Intramural warfare weekend after weekend produces survivors that are ready to rumble in late March.
“We are battle tested,” said Metcalf. “None of our teams are afraid of anyone. They won’t be intimidated by any team they play.”
This season’s battling, though, produced an unusual number of PairWise casualties, exacerbated by damaging non-league defeats. Northeastern lost to Sacred Heart and Bentley. Providence was beaten by Brown and Princeton. UMass Lowell was swept at home by Alaska Anchorage.
“When you don’t get those results that you’re expecting the math stays with you the whole year,” mused Metcalf.
The PairWise math favors lopsided conferences. The ECAC, which qualified four teams, was that way this year. Its top three won a combined 74 games overall, its bottom three only 22. Only four teams had winning marks. So Quinnipiac and Harvard were rock-solid for a spot, and Cornell and Colgate joined them Saturday.
Except for BU, which essentially wrapped up an at-large berth weeks ago, everybody else in Hockey East was in desperation mode when its one-and-done playoffs began. So it wasn’t surprising that six of the conference tournament’s final seven games, including both semifinals and the final, were decided in overtime.
“You stop for a second, the season’s over,” said Merrimack center Matt Copponi, who scored Friday’s winner after 90 minutes.
Hockey East was smart to do away with the best-of-three quarterfinal format before last season. It was a boon to higher seeds playing at home and a considerable hurdle for lower ones on the road.
The remainder of the tournament doesn’t work that way, nor do the NCAAs. Lose and you’re gone, unless you’ve already earned your spot in the nationals, as BU did, by your season-long body of work.
“It makes it exciting because you’ve got a chance at the end of the year,” said Metcalf. “If you want to do something special, you can.”
Providence, which finished its regular season with only three victories in its final 14 contests, was a bounce of the puck away from beating BU on Friday and playing for the title.
Boston College, which went winless in eight straight from January into February, took Merrimack the distance and beyond in their quarterfinal.
The Warriors themselves survived a mid-season swoon and still were standing on Saturday with two significant prizes to play for — their first Hockey East trophy and the right to keep playing.
After Harvard lost to Colgate, it all came down to what was or wasn’t happening in St. Paul. That result broke Merrimack’s way, 3-0. Such is life inside March’s frozen bubble.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.