Hockey East Tournament Preview
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
For the 30th time, Hockey East will host its championship weekend. This edition begins Friday at 5 p.m. at Boston's TD Garden. The league looks different than it did all those years ago. While so much is the same, the massive changes Hockey East has experienced over time define this weekend's field.
In the first game, second-seeded Massachusetts-Lowell hosts No. 8 Notre Dame before third-seeded Providence and No. 4 New Hampshire battle in the nightcap game. Each club vying for a league championship arrives in Boston with a very different story.
Lowell's is a tale of the defending champion and newly cemented college hockey juggernaut looking to improve on last March's run of trophies and program firsts. Meanwhile, Notre Dame, Hockey East's newest member, looks to clinch its first league championship and continue a run of redemption after some midseason struggles.
New Hampshire, one of the league's traditional powers, is back in the semifinals after two-year absence. The Wildcats and their long history of postseason shortcomings are desperate to get back to the top of the league. Providence and third-year coach Nate Leaman have appeared in the semifinals the last two seasons without advancing to the championship game. Leaman's reclamation project is far from complete, but two wins in Boston would certainly mark another step for the program.
However, the most interesting aspect of this celebration of three decades of Hockey East is the teams not competing. For the first time since 1988, neither Boston University nor Boston College are present. The Commonwealth Avenue powers have won 18 of 29 HE titles (11 for BC and seven for BU). Notre Dame knocked off each team on its way to a date with Lowell Friday afternoon.
In the past, this may have cleared a fairly safe path to a championship for the Fighting Irish. Things have changed. Notre Dame is a great hockey team, far greater than its eight seed would suggest. But this Hockey East, in its 30th year, isn't what it used to be.
No. 8 Notre Dame vs. No. 2 Massachusetts-Lowell
Season series: 2-0, UML
The 2013-14 season meant two different things for UMass-Lowell and Notre Dame.
Jeff Jackson ushered in yet another new era for UND hockey this season, bringing his club into a new league. A preseason favorite to challenge for Hockey East's regular and postseason championships, the Fighting Irish ended the year in eighth place.
"It was a strange season for me," Jackson said.
"Obviously, moving into a new conference was a little bit more challenging, I think, than any of us expected, especially Hockey East with the depth of the conference being so strong. No matter how much we tried to prepare for teams ... it seemed like every time we played an opponent, we were surprised by the way they played the game."
UMass-Lowell, on the other hand, battled a number of injuries in a quest to come together just as the postseason began. Finally healthy, the River Hawks' patented blend of suffocating defense and quick-strike scoring is right where UML coach Norm Bazin wants it.
"We’ve had our share of adversity with different injuries throughout (the season)," Bazin said. "We got through those four to five weeks, and I feel we’re coming back to getting a healthy team to compete here in the TD Garden. We’re looking forward to playing hopefully a couple games, and the guys are excited despite playing a very, very difficult opponent in Notre Dame."
That tough opponent Bazin referred to proved to be one of Hockey East's best despite finishing in the bottom half of the Hockey East standings. In their last 11 games, the Fighting Irish have allowed just 15 goals and posted a 8-1-1 record. UND defeated BU in the tournament's single-elimination first round before taking two of three at Boston College last weekend.
Jackson's team plays a possession-based game focused on keeping the puck and retrieving it quickly when it loses possession. This style, which demands extreme discipline and relentless puck support, can appear defensive-minded. However, Jackson is quick to point out that every tactic his team executes is in the name of generating scoring chances.
"Yeah, we defend," he said. "We try to defend well, but I think we also try to transition from defense and possess the puck, whether it's from the breakout, through the neutral zone, into the offensive zone, on the cycle, things like that. I think it's more about puck possession. It's no different than football. If you control the puck for 60 percent of the game, you have a better chance of winning."
Last Friday against BC, Notre Dame executed Jackson's concept to perfection. Each time the Eagles attempted a rush up ice or moved the puck into UND's zone, the Irish players quickly stymied the rush and regained possession to generate chances. BC's dynamic top line managed some looks, of course, but UND's top defensive players — blue liner Stephen Johns and goaltender Steven Summerhays — were up to most of it.
The Irish's dominance was especially clear in the neutral zone. Against UML, those 50 feet between the blue lines will likely decide the game. The River Hawks are as good in possession as UND.
When UND manages to get the puck into the Lowell zone, UML's stout defense will be on display. Led by sophomore defenseman Christian Folin and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, the River Hawks have allowed just 22 goals in their last 13 games.
"They have multiple fronts that we have to be concerned with on the attack," Bazin said. "And it’s going to be an extra challenge to monitor all those attacking options, from that perspective."
The River Hawks' scoring options lack the type of high-end producer present in the lineups of most contenders. Bazin famously considers his club to have "four second lines," and it's served UML well for three straight seasons.
Senior Joe Pendenza leads UML with 13 goals. Sophomore Adam Chapie (12) and senior Derek Arnold (10), who scored the game-winner in last year's Hockey East title game, are second and third, respectively.
Absent from the scoresheet for most of the season was junior Scott Wilson, who scored just seven goals this season after consecutive 16-goal years. An injury kept him out of the lineup for eight games in late January into February.
"I think Scott is just hitting his stride now," Bazin said. "It seems trivial, because we haven’t had him for a long time, but you know the two games up in Vermont to close out the regular season, I thought he was just trying to get back in shape and get back at game speed."
Wilson's played the last five games for UML — all against Vermont — and scored twice.
Despite the disciplined style of each team, both coaches expect a fast-paced game with each possession possibly turning the game.
"There’s probably going to be some similarities between the two teams, and I don’t think it’s going to be a snooze-fest," Jackson said. "I think it’s going to probably be a good hockey game with good tempo, because both teams do play well defensively, but they transition well. It could be a lot more entertaining than people might imagine."
Prediction: Notre Dame
No. 4 New Hampshire vs. No. 3 Providence
Season series: 1-1
It's strange to think a New Hampshire team entered March as a bit of an afterthought. From 2002 through 2008, the Wildcats clinched a spot in the semifinals each year. The parity around Hockey East and some difficult seasons in Durham have led to UNH missing four of the last five semifinal rounds.
"We’re excited to be going to Boston," UNH coach Dick Umile said. "We missed out the last couple of years. It’s been a very, very competitive season in Hockey East. I think we’re all aware of how good the league is, top to bottom."
UNH defeated Northeastern in three games to earn its place and a showdown with Providence. On Sunday, UNH was tied, 3-3, with the Huskies after two periods. Senior Kevin Goumas scored early in the period to complete a hat trick and yet another dominant performance in his four years in Durham. Prior to being shut out in Game 1, Goumas had at least a point in nine consecutive games. On the year, the play-making winger has 17 goals and 33 assists.
"He just got his 50th point," Umile said of Goumas. "He had a fabulous night in Game 3 against Northeastern, scoring three goals and an assist. When you watch him play, he’s around the puck all the time. He’s a very, very smart hockey player."
While Goumas is the leader of the Wildcat offense, senior Nick Sorkin and junior Matt Willows have benefited from his company and enjoyed strong years of their own.
The typically up-tempo UNH offense, however, relies on an experienced blue line and Casey DeSmith in goal. The Wildcats haven't shut opponents down consistently, and the continued absence of junior Trevor vanRiemsdyk has made life even more difficult for Umile's team.
In his last nine games, DeSmith's has just a .911 save percentage despite a .920 mark on the year. DeSmith doesn't regularly steal games like some of Hockey East's other goaltenders, but he typically gives his team more than a chance to win hockey games.
"Well I think he’s been pretty consistent," Umile said. "He gives us an opportunity to win every night. You look at save percentages of goalies in our league, it’s phenomenal. (Providence goaltender Jon) Gillies is at .920, and then we’ve got guys at .940, so his save percentage is probably seventh in the league, but I can tell you he’s been very, very consistent throughout the season."
Standing opposite DeSmith on Friday night will be Gillies, who just happens to be one of DeSmith's closest friends since they played together with the Indiana Ice of the United States Hockey League in 2010-11. Like Umile said, Providence's Gillies has been one of the league's best goaltenders since arriving at Schneider Arena.
Gillies has been great down the stretch after some struggles after the break. PC has won six straight games entering the semifinals, and the sophomore has a .945 save percentage in that time.
Entering the season, Gillies was expected to be a strength for the Friars. However, the scoring that paced the club to a 13-2-3 start has returned after a lengthy cold spell in January and February. At times, PC generated shots but couldn't manage to get goals. Other times, goals came, but Gillies struggled. Since sweeping Maine in Orono to end the regular season, all of it has returned for Leaman's club.
"We were really struggling at home, for whatever reason," Leaman said. "We were consistently generating a lot of offense, but not really scoring, and our goaltending was struggling just a little bit there. And that’s a tough combination when this league gets so tight, and the margin of error is so little in the league this year."
Last weekend, the Friars swept Maine for a second time in a row to advance to the league semifinals. Six different players scored over the weekend, while Gillies stopped 70 of 73 shots in the wins.
Even as its offense has returned, Providence knows it needs Gillies at his best to win championships.
"We had a lot of conversations, but it wasn’t to refocus Jon," Leaman said. "Jon is very focused. He’s a kid that’s extremely committed. He lives the game.
"Really it was just kind of about getting his head in the right place, as far as taking it one day at a time," Leaman continued. "I think his freshman year went so well for him that there wasn’t a lot of adversity, and this was kind of some of the first adversity he had hit."
With Gillies back in form, senior defenseman Steven Shamanski's play stands out even more. Shamanski plays major minutes on the PC blue line against opponents' top players. The matchup between Shamanski's pairing and UNH's top line will be a particularly important factor for both clubs.