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March 22, 2013 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Hockey East Preview

Old Foes, and the New Breed, Square Off

by Nick Canelas/CHN Reporter

The matchups couldn't be more different.

One boasts a battle between two teams that have gone from Hockey East bottom dwellers to title contenders in a matter of two seasons under new coaching regimes. The other matches up long-time rivals, all too familiar with success, and could possibly mark the end of a historic coaching career.

That'll be the scene at TD Garden when regular-season champion Massachusetts-Lowell takes on fourth-seeded Providence at 5 p.m. and No. 2 Boston College faces third-seeded Boston University at 8 p.m. on Friday in the Hockey East tournament semifinals.

"We're very excited," Mass.-Lowell coach Norm Bazin said. "We feel like all four teams have an excellent chance of winning the tournament and we're looking forward to it."

No. 4 Providence vs. No. 1 Massachusetts-Lowell

Season series: Massachusetts-Lowell won, 2-1

The River Hawks came into the season with high expectations in their second season under Bazin and didn't disappoint, capturing their first regular-season title since joining the conference as a founding member in 1984. UML finished off Maine in two games with a hard-fought, 2-1 win in overtime at the Tsongas Center last Friday in the Hockey East quarterfinals.

One the other end, the Friars are coming off a grueling, three-game series with New Hampshire last weekend that ended with a 3-2 win at Schneider Arena on Sunday. Providence will play in its second-straight semifinal under coach Nate Leaman after upsetting UML as the No. 7 seed in last year's quarterfinals.

Just two weeks ago these teams went head-to-head for the Hockey East regular season crown. This is also a rematch of last year's quarterfinal when the Friars knocked off UML in three games on the road.

"We're very familiar with Lowell having played them and split with them two weekends ago," Leaman said. "We know very much their strengths, and I think playing with UNH this weekend, we had a very tough team and tough opponent. I hope it prepares us for the game."

Both teams had valuable lessons to learn following last year's Hockey East tournament. The River Hawks responded well in the first round this time around, and is much more experienced than last year's squad. For Providence, the 4-2 loss in the semifinals against BC will be something Leaman addresses to his team in preparation for Friday.

"There is no doubt that our team, last year against BC, was not focused in the first five minutes of the game," Leaman said. "It's something we are obviously going to talk about. Nothing helps that more than experience."

Connor Hellebuyck's presence in goal is the biggest reason for the River Hawks turnaround from early-season disappointment to regular-season champions. Doug Carr got a majority of the playing time early in the year, but Hellebuyck has started the last 11 games and won 10 of them. The freshman is 16-2 for the year with a 1.49 goals against average and a .944 save percentage, and his 42 saves on 45 shots helped his club overcome a feisty Maine team.

Providence features the league's most consistent goaltender this season in Jon Gillies. The freshman standout has started 34 games for a Friars team that dresses as many as 10 first-year players on a nightly basis. He is second in Hockey East behind Hellebuyck in goals against average (2.08) and save percentage (.931) while playing nearly twice as many minutes.

"We are very aware of who we're playing. (Gillies) has had a really good season," Bazin said. "It's good to see the league is chock full of talented freshman goalies. I think it's really hard to score in this league. I think there is a good crop of freshmen in our league as a whole. We're going to have our hands full."

The Friars missed Gillies for three games this season while he represented his country in the World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia. Although they went 0-2-1 in that span, Leaman believes that made his team better.

"The three games he was away ...  I think that was healthy for us. It helped us improve," Leaman said. "You see we went 0-2-1 without him. We got into league play, and it made our team much better because we knew we needed to prepare in other areas. I have never seen, as a freshman, someone this consistent and I am not sure I will again. He gives you a chance to win every night."

While Gillies was away, the Friars tied Vermont and dropped a pair of games in Mankato, Minn., to Minnesota State. The losses to the Mavericks are among the reasons PC is currently a bubble team for the NCAA tournament.

While the talent of young stars like Ross Mauermann and Mark Jankowski could be enough to help Providence advance, it was depth that propelled the Friars past UNH. Third line winger Nick Saracino scored four times last weekend. Depth is hardly in short supply for Lowell either. Senior center Riley Wetmore headlines a diverse group of forwards that excel on both ends of the ice. Junior Joseph Pendenza enjoyed a breakout season in 2012-13, while sophomore Scott Wilson continues to shine as one of Hockey East's best.

Pick: UMass-Lowell wins, 2-1

No. 3 Boston University vs. No. 2 Boston College

Season Series: Boston College won, 2-1

The Eagles head to the Garden for the ninth consecutive year as they try to make it four straight conference tournament championships. But this time they will be doing it without coach Jerry York, who wasn't present for the final contest of his team's two-game sweep of Vermont in the quarterfinals at Conte Forum. York suffered a second detached retina in his right eye and underwent surgery on Monday morning. Associate head coaches Mike Cavanaugh and Greg Brown will assume York's role behind the bench.

"He's home and doing well, there's not a lot of pain," Brown said of York. "They completed the surgery pretty quickly and, optimistically, he's hoping it's a quick recovery. He's hoping to be back with us after this weekend."

The Terriers will be the ones trying to stop BC's streak in what could be coach Jack Parker's final game as head coach. Parker announced his retirement last week, after 40 years leading his alma mater. BU is coming off a convincing sweep of Merrimack at Agganis Arena over the weekend. And, unlike its counterparts, will need a win on Friday to keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive.

This is a rivalry that all college hockey fans, and sports fans in general, can truly appreciate. And it's only fitting that Parker's likely last meeting against his team's biggest rival will come on the biggest stage the league has to offer Friday at 8 p.m.

So much has changed since the teams last met on Dec. 1. The Terriers have gone through some difficult stretches in that time span with a lack of depth due to injuries and departures, inconsistency between the pipes and a struggling defense almost pushing them out of contention for home-ice in the quarterfinal.

Since the calendar turned to March, however, BU has been back to first-semester form, winning three of its last four regular-season games before beating Merrimack in two games last weekend.

"It's a little unusual that we haven't seen them in so long, it seems like a long time ago that we played them" Parker said of BC. "Both teams have struggled in the second half, a little bit with slumps from individual players, slumps from getting Ws and both teams seem to be out of it now.

"I know we feel we're back to where we were first semester as far as the way we're playing as a team. Our concepts seem to be better, our energy seems to be better (and) our determination seems to be better."

While the Eagles' finish was nothing like the 11-game win streak that turned into a 19-0 run to the national championship they went on last season, they've got to be feeling good about where they are right now after some inconsistency through January and February. Much of the credit for the turnaround in March should go to none other than Johnny Gaudreau. After scoring just 14 points combined in January and February, Gaudreau has registered 12 points in the last six games, including two goals and an assist in the quarterfinal sweep of Vermont.

"I think Johnny just went through a cold streak," Cavanaugh said. "Points-wise, I know he went a few games without a goal, but he still was getting a breakaway or two a game and just not scoring. All the great players go through streaks here and there. The credit to Johnny is that he kept fighting through it, and that's what the great players do: they don't let it demobilize them for the rest of the season."

Despite the concerns of depth, BU is hopeful to have defenseman Garrett Noonan back on the ice on Friday after the junior missed the Merrimack series with a separated shoulder sustained against Northeastern two weeks ago.

BC's biggest health concern at the moment is York. The Eagles already lost him for a stretch in January, and struggled during that time. However, that experience could prove to be valuable on Friday with the players having already played under the command of Cavanaugh and Brown before.

"If we had not gone through it earlier in the year, it probably would have been a lot more to handle, but since we had experienced it with the UNH weekend and with UMass and Northeastern, we had a pretty good idea of how it was going to work and how we handle things," Cavanuagh said. "I thought for the most part, it was as seamless as it could be on Saturday."

Pick: Boston College wins, 4-2

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