After close race, a fittingly up-for-grabs Hockey East championship awaits

It’s down to four teams for the Hockey East title.

2013 Hockey East Championship

Follow all our coverage of the Hockey East postseason at Playoff Central

The way the matchups line up, it’s a pairing of similar teams in each bracket. It’s also a championship that is as much up for grabs as any in recent memory, which is befitting of a league that went into the final weekend of the regular season with the four top teams all within two points of each other (and another two just three points back).

So onward to the matchups.

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

As I’ve written elsewhere, this matches two of the top young coaches in the game, Lowell’s Norm Bazin and the Friars’ Nate Leaman. It’s stunning that two years ago these two schools finished ninth and 10th in Hockey East, both missing the playoffs. Providence had missed three straight years and was coming off a season in which it had scored only 75 goals and only 25 returned.

Talk about the cupboard being bare.

What a difference two years has meant.

“I think those schools and those coaches have made this league much more difficult,” Boston University coach Jack Parker says. “The usual suspects have not fallen off; the other schools have really picked it up.

“[These young coaches] are really class-act guys. I was talking to Dick Umile about the games down in Providence and he said, ‘It was tough. They are a well-coached team and Nate’s a great guy.’

“I feel the same way about Nate [and] you couldn’t find a more unassuming guy than Norm Bazin. We’re dealing with guys that have come in and slapped us around and nobody cares about it because they’re nice guys.”

While it’s certainly hyperbole to say that nobody cares, it isn’t (or at least not much) to say that Lowell and Providence have done some slapping around. Providence has played its last seven games against teams in the top eight of the PairWise Rankings and emerged with a winning record in those games. Over the last month, Lowell has swept its three games from the two perennial powers in the other bracket (Boston College and Boston University).

Two weeks ago, the River Hawks and the Friars faced off in a winner-take-all match for the regular season crown. On Friday, they’ll face off for a chance to win a Hockey East tournament title. For Lowell, that would be another first. For the Friars, it would be their third and their first since 1996.

Apart from the similarities of the two exceptional coaches who’ve crafted exceptional turnarounds at schools that haven’t advanced to the TD Garden on a regular basis in the past, this game also features two of the league’s top defensive clubs.

Lowell and Providence finished the season tied for second in team defense, allowing an average of only 2.33 goals against per game. New Hampshire finished first, but considering the huge gap closed by these two teams in that statistic, one could argue that they’re the top two defensive teams in the league right now.

What have been the ingredients in that defensive prowess?

“Both teams have excellent goaltending and compete very hard in the one-on-one battles, in every face-off and the net fronts,” Leaman says. “The net fronts will be the big tests. They were in the series two weekends ago and they will continue to be the big tests this Friday night.”

Leaman’s point about excellent goaltending can’t be disputed. Arguably, the two teams have the top two goalies in the league even though they’re both freshmen.

Providence’s Jon Gillies has been stunning all season long. It’s no coincidence that the Friars went 0-2-1 while he was away at the World Junior Championship.

“There’s no doubt he has been our best player over the course of the year,” Leaman says. “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.

“The three games he was away at the world tournament was healthy for us. It made our team much better because we knew we needed to prepare in other areas.”

It took Lowell’s Connor Hellebuyck longer to wrestle the mantle from Doug Carr, but he’s been remarkable ever since. His record in Hockey East games: 11-1, a .948 save percentage and a 1.38 goals against average.

Eye-popping numbers.

So even though two weekends ago this series went (ignoring empty-net goals) 3-0 Providence and 3-1 Lowell, this game is more likely to finish 2-1 or even 1-0.

Which means special teams will become magnified in their importance. Normally, that would amount to a significant advantage for Lowell. The River Hawks finished the year second in Hockey East in net special teams at plus-8; the Friars finished eighth at minus-6.

Last weekend, however, Lowell came out on the short end. It matched Maine in power-play goals in Game 1 with both sides scoring two, but gave up another one to the Black Bears in Game 2 while getting shut out themselves. Considering that the River Hawks squandered two five-minute man advantages, that looks like cause for some concern.

“[Against Maine], we weren’t that pleased with our special teams,” Bazin says. “The nice thing about hockey is that when you’re full of yourself, you watch the videotape and then you’re humbled. It’s definitely important for us to keep improving, and special teams is one of those areas in which we’re looking to improve.”

Ironically, Providence’s normally weak power play struck twice in the span of just 44 seconds against UNH’s best-in-the-country penalty kill, providing the Friars with the decisive margin of victory.

Leaman, however, isn’t counting on that success automatically duplicating itself.

“[Lowell’s] penalty kill has been very good,” he says. “Against UNH, we just had some timing and bounces against them. We hit a couple of seams and it was guys making plays. Last time we played Lowell we were 0-for-10 on the power play. If we want to be successful, that’s an area we need to improve on.”

One factor that could tilt the ice in Lowell’s favor is its experience advantage on the big stage. Although the Friars upset Lowell in last year’s quarterfinals to advance to the TD Garden, the River Hawks gained considerable experience in the NCAA tournament, where they came within a game of the Frozen Four. They defeated Miami in overtime — how’s that for a little pressure? — before bowing to Leaman’s old school, Union.

By contrast, the Friars showed the jitters of a young team in the Hockey East semifinal game, quickly falling behind eventual Hockey East and NCAA champion Boston College. Not even that sobering experience will help the nine or 10 freshmen regularly in the Friars lineup.

“There is no doubt that our team, last year against BC, was not focused in the first five minutes of the game,” Leaman says. “I think we gave up a breakaway and a 2-on-0 and they scored a goal in the first five minutes. It’s something we are obviously going to talk about.

“Nothing helps that more than experience. We are going to have half the team in Friday’s game that was there last year. They’ll have that experience.

“Having played our last seven games against the top [eight] in the PairWise and playing the final game of the season for the regular season championship, and then playing the playoff series against UNH will all help prepare us.”

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

The matchup between two legendary coaches will not happen.

BU coach Jack Parker will stand behind the bench for the final time unless the Terriers win and postpone his retirement for at least one more game.

BC coach Jerry York, however, will not. Monday’s surgery to repair his detached retina will sideline him for at least this weekend.

“Optimistically, he’s hoping that it’s a fairly quick recovery and that he’ll be back with us hopefully after this weekend,” associate coach Greg Brown says. Brown and Mike Cavanaugh will split the coaching duties as they did on Saturday and for the four games earlier this year when York first developed the problem.

“If we had not gone through it earlier in the year, it probably would have been a lot more to handle [on Saturday],” Cavanaugh says. “But since we had experienced it [before], we had a pretty good idea of how it was going to work and how we handle things. I thought for the most part, it was as seamless as it could be on Saturday.”

Brown seconds that opinion.

“Especially for the kids, since they had all done that before, they didn’t miss a beat,” Brown says. “The seniors picked right up and told the other guys that we’ll be fine, and they had a great attitude going into the game. There wasn’t a lot of confusion at all because it had happened once before.”

So while the battle of the legendary coaches won’t happen, the legendary rivalry continues. For the first postseason in many a year, the two squads won’t have met since early December. Usually, if regular season contests haven’t occurred during the stretch run, the two powerhouses will have met in the Beanpot. Not this time.

BC took the season’s series 2-1 but the two teams split the weekend series when they last met. Both teams are playing well now: BC is 4-1-1 in March and BU is on a four-game winning streak and has won six of its last seven.

“They always seem to be playing well when they’re playing us,” Cavanaugh says. “They are rolling along here and playing well as a team, but when they play Boston College, they could have lost four in a row and we’re still going to get their best game.

“The old adage, and it’s a cliché, [is true]. ‘You can throw the records out the window when these two teams play.’ I think it is evident from our past games, and I think it will hold true this weekend. You’re going to see the best from both teams on Friday night.”

Parker agrees.

“Both teams have had some struggles — I think we’ve struggled more than they have — during the second half with slumps,” he says. “Both teams seem to be well out of that right now.

“I know we feel like we are 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.

“Both teams usually bring out the best in each other. I know that the two games we played in December were both pretty good hockey games.”

Depth has been a concern for both clubs, although BC got defenseman Patch Alber back last weekend and BU could get defenseman Garrett Noonan back. Parker lists Noonan as 60-40 to play, though he hadn’t practiced with the team to the extent of taking hits as of Tuesday.

“We don’t have any depth,” Parker says. “We’re playing three lines and spotting a fourth line and we don’t have any extra players. We’re playing 1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-4 as far as the lines are concerned so they’re not sitting too long.

“Our third line is playing much better right now. They’re getting more ice time, they’ve earned that ice time and they’re more comfortable in the swing of things. [Sam] Kurker is playing on the power play, [Ben Rosen and Matt Lane] have been killing penalties. All three of those guys have played much better in the second half and been getting more confident as we’ve gone on here.”

While BC’s offense has been top-heavy in its reliance on the top two lines for most of the season, the third and fourth lines recently have added some much-needed scoring depth.

“They’ve played very well for us,” Cavanaugh says. “Patrick Brown had a big goal for us this weekend. Brooks Dyroff had a big goal and so did Cam Spiro. We got great contributions from our third and fourth lines.

“Whenever you’re in a playoff series, you need contributions from your so-called ‘not marquee’ players. The best teams are always getting contributions from those types of guys.

“We said Saturday night [that] if you’re going to put on a BC uniform, you’re expected to contribute in one way or another. We’ve been really proud of those guys. They’re committed, they work at their games, and it’s nice to see that hard work get rewarded with some timely goals.”

Jack Parker, the legend

Parker has been one of Hockey East’s greatest coaches and ambassadors. In his absence, he’ll leave behind an enormous void.

One of my favorite features is the one I wrote back in 2000 shortly after he won his 600th game. (Was that really 13 years ago? Whoa, time has been flying.) I had to break it into two parts because I got so much material. That was probably fitting since his colorful quotes have livened up so many of my pieces.

I’d like to think that two-part feature still holds up well today and gives a lot of insight into why I, and so many others, respect him so much. Click to check out Part I and Part II.

Enjoy your retirement, Jack. You will most certainly be missed.

Quick shots into the night

The season has ended for five teams. Lowell, BC, and UNH appear certain to have NCAA tournament berths clinched regardless of what happens this weekend. Providence and BU will need to win at least their semifinal games and then either take the Hockey East title or get a lot of help.

For those teams whose seasons are complete, here are some quick thoughts as they look ahead to next year.

Merrimack: The Warriors stood in first place later in the season than ever before in the program’s history. This year’s roster included only three seniors, none in the top 10 in scoring, so this team should only get better, a scary thought for their opponents.

Vermont: The Catamounts will bring back almost their entire team. (The only regularly dressing seniors this year were Brett Bruneteau and Anders Franzon.) So expect improvement through maturity plus some fresh blood through recruits.

Maine: The Black Bears improved greatly over the second half with their significant freshman class rounding into form. Four of Maine’s top five scorers were freshmen, so that nucleus should only get better. And with Martin Ouellette back for his senior year, expect a strong run at home ice.

Massachusetts: UMass gave a lot of teams fits this year and will be bringing back a senior-dominated lineup led by Branden Gracel, Conor Sheary and Michael Pereira. If all the seniors come back, this could be a pretty tough team.

Northeastern: I expect to see a lot of new faces on the Northeastern roster, so it bears watching how the final recruiting chips fall. However, a roster that starts with Kevin Roy includes a heckuva start.

And finally, not that it has anything to do with anything, but …

This is the final column of the season as next week we move into NCAA tournament coverage. It’s been a privilege to write for all of you. Thanks for reading and if you’re at the Manchester regional or the Frozen Four, please stop and say hello.

For those who have enjoyed my writing, copies of my novel Cracking the Ice are still available. Hockey fans have really enjoyed this title and it’s squeaky clean, appropriate for 14-year-olds and up.

Not as squeaky clean is Bubba Goes for Broke, a novel I published under the pen name David Bawdy because, well, it’s a bawdy tale of the “Two and a Half Men” vein (at least, back when that show was funny). Rated R for language and humor. The trade paperback will be out in two weeks, but the electronic edition is available now.

Thanks again to all of you and a huge thanks to my wonderful wife Brenda for her transcriptions and her love.


  1. David

    Thanks for another great Hockey East season. Here is to hoping that Jack Parker and Jerry York CAN coach against each other one last time, at the Frozen Four!

    • The picks never appear in the column. They come out in the Hockey East blog sometime late Thursday or early Friday morning (unless there’s a Thursday night game, such as last week’s Lowell-Maine quarterfinal). They’ll be out later today, delayed because Jim and I were the MCs at the Hockey East Awards Banquet last night.


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