Familiar Foes in Unfamiliar Setting
PC, Lowell Meet in Hockey East Playoffs
by Scott McLaughlin/CHN Writer
LOWELL, Mass. When Providence and Massachusetts-Lowell meet Thursday night in Game 1 of their quarterfinal series, there certainly won't be a lack of familiarity. The River Hawks and Friars have met three times in the last six weeks, including twice last weekend — both Lowell wins.
"It makes preparation a little easier in the sense that you just faced them in a weekend series," said Lowell coach Norm Bazin. "But it doesn't make the games any easier. It makes the research easier, but that's about the only thing."
For the River Hawks, the goal in terms of preparation will be to repeat what they did over the weekend, when they outscored the Friars 9-3 in the two games. In Friday's 5-1 thrashing, it was their top line of Scott Wilson, Riley Wetmore and Derek Arnold that led the way, as the trio combined for three goals and three assists.
The next night, it was the second line of Joseph Pendenza, Matt Ferreira and Terrence Wallin — which had been split up Friday night after struggling the weekend before — that took the reigns and combined for three goals and three assists of their own.
The return to form on offense was encouraging following a weekend in which the River Hawks scored just four goals against Merrimack. But the biggest bounce-back performance came from the defense, which had allowed 16 goals over the previous four games — its worst four-game stretch of the season from a defensive standpoint. Lowell held Providence to three goals and 48 shots last weekend.
"We certainly needed to get back to playing good team defense," Bazin said. "I think it was a team defense effort this weekend, and it has to continue to be. In the playoffs, nothing is easy, and it's not wide open like maybe in the regular season it can be. So we're gonna have to continue to play good defense if we're gonna have any success in the playoffs."
While a sweep was just what the River Hawks needed following a 1-3-1 stretch, the Friars enter the playoffs on a four-game losing streak and six-game winless streak — both season worsts. Very little has gone right over that stretch, but PC coach Nate Leaman said the defense has been the biggest problem. Providence has allowed 19 goals in its last four games.
"We have to play better defensively, first of all," Leaman said. "A lot of it is just identifying guys coming back. We're not talking enough coming back and our heads aren't on swivels. We're all kind of sucking to the puck a little bit and leaving guys wide open. If you want to win in the playoffs, it can't be easy to score against you. Right now, we're too easy to score against."
The Friars haven't done enough at the other end of the ice, either. They have scored just six goals in their last six games and have broken 30 shots just once in that stretch. Fortunately for them, there is reason to be optimistic about the offense heading into Thursday's series opener against Lowell. That's because leading goal scorer Tim Schaller, who has missed the last five games with an undisclosed injury, is expected to play.
Schaller scored nine goals in 16 first-half games and was tied for the national lead with six power-play goals at the break. His second half has been riddled with missed time, though. He played just one game in January before coming down with mononucleosis and missing the next six.
Schaller returned in early February and picked up right where he left off, tallying four goals in five games before suffering the injury that ended his regular season. The numbers bear out just how important Schaller is to the Friars. They average 3.09 goals per game with him in the lineup and just 1.33 without him.
Leaman called Schaller his team's best faceoff man and biggest power-play weapon, while Bazin admitted that he'll give the Friars a new look that his team hasn't seen yet. Schaller has missed all three games against Lowell this season.
"It poses an enormous challenge for us," Bazin said of Schaller. "He's 6-foot-2, 210 pounds. He brings a whole physical element to their team that may not be there when he's not playing. So that'll be the initial challenge for us to face come Thursday."
Schaller's return should help even up what appears to be a mismatch based on the standings and last weekend's two games. In terms of style, though, this series won't be a mismatch at all.
Both teams missed the playoffs last year, and both teams brought in new coaches that have instilled fast, physical, hard-on-the-forecheck systems. Bazin said it is those similarities and Providence's hard work that led him to believe this will be a tight series.
"In many areas, it's like playing ourselves," Bazin said. "I think we're two very evenly matched teams. We certainly realize that if we don't play at the top of our game, we won't be successful."