Lowell’s championship reward: A first-round battle with a behind-the-bench subplot

Before we get into anything this week, first off we must tip our caps to Massachusetts-Lowell, the first team to break the Big Four Stranglehold — the quartet of Boston College, Boston University, Maine and New Hampshire — and win a regular season title.

The photos that came from the Lowell locker room after the team was presented the trophy were pretty priceless. If you haven’t seen them, check them out on Twitter.

That said, the River Hawks move on to the quarterfinals, a place where a No. 1 seed should have all but an automatic road to the TD Garden. That, however, is hardly the case.

Lowell will face Maine, a team that has played well in the second half of the season but, more importantly, a club that won the season series against the River Hawks. Maine lost its first game against the River Hawks but then won twice, once late in the third period and another in overtime after a late tying goal.

The Black Bears have been more than a pesky foe for the River Hawks and this weekend’s series shows no indication that will cease.

“You win the league and you feel that you deserve a good opponent, and we’ve got our hands full,” Lowell coach Norm Bazin said. “They’ve given us everything we can handle and more. But we also feel like if you’re going to play opponents, you might as well play the very best.”

The one thing Maine brings to Lowell, and particularly to Bazin, is a sense of familiarity. Bazin, who played for Lowell from 1990 to 1994, played under Maine coach Tim Whitehead, then an assistant at Lowell. When Whitehead was named Lowell’s head coach in 1996, Bazin was one of his first assistants.

The two say straight out that they learned plenty from each other. So don’t be surprised if the teams battling on the ice beginning Thursday night at Tsongas Arena look similar. Bazin said, though, that while his respect for Whitehead is utmost, once the puck drops that all will go away.

“Obviously, we’re good friends,” Bazin said of Whitehead. “He gave me my first opportunity in coaching and you never forget that. We really respect their staff and their team and the way they compete.

“He is someone who did a good job here at Lowell and a good job at Maine. Having a chance to work with him, I can’t tell you how much I respect his knowledge of the game. It’s one of those things you’re certainly going to have a candid conversation before the game, but come game time, I think we’ll have our game faces on.”

Whitehead agrees. Though overflowing with compliments for the second-year Lowell coach, Whitehead also understands this series means a lot for his program.

“Norm is flat-out one of the best people I have ever known in my life,” Whitehead said. “You do take a chance when you are adding someone to your staff who has not coached before. Norm was the type of person, just knowing him when I was an assistant coach, his work ethic and character and his knowledge of the game, I was very confident that he would become a great coach.

“It is bittersweet to have to go against him in this playoff series. When the puck is dropped, it will be a great competition.”

When asked about Bazin, Whitehead wasn’t brief, saying that he feels a lot he has personally learned in life can be attributed back to a young Bazin when he was an assistant at Lowell.

“I learned a lot from Norm,” Whitehead said. “Most importantly was his honest approach to everything that he does. I really respect how he tackles every day.

“He is very organized and prepares very well. He is who he is and I love that. I have always loved Norm from when I was an assistant coach all the way through today. He is a great father and a great husband. I respect the person that he is. It is great to see all the success that he has had and I am very confident that is going to continue. It is not an accident. It is great to see how well he is doing.”

Both of these teams may be about to play the most dramatic and highly-anticipated 1-vs.-8 series in league history. For Lowell, an NCAA bid is on the line. For Maine, it’s simply continuing a season that has improved greatly since the calendar turned to 2013.

Whitehead was blunt when summing up the end of his season.

“It is a great opportunity to get into the playoffs,” Whitehead said. “We just want to play.”

Saying goodbye to a legend

No one would have expected last Saturday that today I would be writing about Jack Parker’s retirement.

The 40-year bench veteran decided Monday, his 68th birthday, was the day he’d tell the world that he would be packing his bags after this season.

The move may be a slight one — Parker will go from his office at Agganis Arena to one in the president’s office, where he will oversee athletic fundraising. But not having Parker behind the bench next October will certainly seem strange.

There are plenty of candidates to replace the 40-year legend. I’ll be exploring that in the coming days. But it is impossible to write my final column of the season without bidding a very fond farewell to one of the few people in the league who have been along since I arrived in 1992.

At that point, Parker was a veteran coach. To know he stayed that much longer is not just respectable, it’s downright amazing.

We’ll see next week if we’re still talking about Parker as a head coach. Either way, his run deserves a tip of the cap for a job well done. The next statue inside Agganis Arena absolutely must depict Parker.

Handing out the hardware

This is my last column of the season as Dave will be scribing the send-off piece for the conference season next week.

Thus, I feel the need to take the opportunity to put together my thoughts on which players should receive the awards in the league.

If anyone watched last Saturday’s postgame show on NESN, I gave my picks for coach, rookie and player of the year. After Saturday, some of those awards would have changed and I will switch one while adding in the other awards.

Jim’s Coach of the Year: Last Saturday, I chose Nate Leaman from Providence and I do believe he could win. But when you think that in two years, Lowell’s Bazin changed the entire dynamic of the league, becoming the first non-Big Four team to win the league title, you have to give Bazin the nod. Norm Bazin, Massachusetts-Lowell.

Jim’s Rookie of the Year: There are a lot of solid names that could take this award, but I firmly believe that Providence would be on the playoff bubble, not the NCAA bubble, if not for Jon Gillies. Jon Gilles, G, Providence.

Jim’s Player of the Year: I said it on NESN on Saturday and will stand by it. I’m ready to make a controversial pick here. I think that Boston College’s Steven Whitney has been easily the most clutch player in Hockey East this season. His goal scoring, particularly in the third period and in the final five minutes, makes him stand out from the rest. Lots of good candidates, but I’d vote for Whitney. Steven Whitney, F, Boston College.

Jim’s Hockey East All-Rookie Team
G Jon Gillies, Providence
D Matt Grzelcyk, Boston University
D Mike Matheson, Boston College
F Kevin Roy, Northeastern
F Devin Shore, Maine
F Danny O’Regan, Boston University

Jim’s All-Hockey East First Team
G Jon Gillies, Providence
D Trevor van Riemsdyk, New Hampshire
D Chad Ruhwedel, Massachusetts-Lowell
F Johnny Gaudreau, Boston College
F Steven Whitney, Boston College
F Kevin Goumas, New Hampshire

Jim’s All-Hockey East Second Team
G Casey DeSmith, New Hampshire
D Jordan Heywood, Merrimack
D Garrett Noonan, Boston University
F Pat Mullane, Boston College
F Branden Gracel, Massachusetts
F Joseph Pendenza, Massachusetts-Lowell

Jim’s Hockey East Defensive Forward: Tim Schaller, Providence

Jim’s Hockey East Defensive Defenseman: Patrick Wey, Boston College