Analysis: Coaches see Yale’s transition, Massachusetts-Lowell’s physical play as semifinal keys

Only one of the programs in the 2013 Frozen Four has been there before, the Yale Bulldogs — 61 years ago.

On Thursday, they will attempt to do what former coach Murray Murdoch’s squad could not all those years ago, get to the national championship game.

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Standing in their way are the Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks, the only one of the four teams left to win their conference’s playoff title.

The River Hawks are a staunch defensive squad, surrendering only two goals per game, and faith in their game plan could prove difficult for a Bulldogs team that looks to make things happen off their opponents’ mistakes.

“They pounce on turnovers and make you pay,” one opposing coach said of the Bulldogs. “You could really see that in the regional games. They are an explosive offensive team.”

The Bulldogs’ top unit of Kenny Agostino, Andrew Miller and Jesse Root makes up the bulk of the offense. Agostino leads the team in every major offensive category with 17 goals, 23 assists and 40 points. Miller’s seven power-play goals are tops on the team.

“Miller and Agostino are special players,” said an opposing coach. “They are very dynamic offensively. All of their lines play the same way. They are a great skating team and they pressure the puck well.”

That pressure was on full display in the opening game of the West Regional against Minnesota when Agostino chased a Gophers defenseman behind their goal, forcing the turnover that led to Root’s goal just nine seconds into overtime.

If the Bulldogs are allowed to make things happen offensively, few teams are capable of shutting them down.

“If you give them time and space, they will beat you,” said one coach. “They are especially dangerous on the power play. They really have some playmakers. They have four or five skaters who make plays off the transition.”

It’s the strides Yale has made on the back end that really impress opposing coaches. This may not be the most talented team the Bulldogs have fielded in recent years, but it is much stronger defensively than in years past.

“With a couple of young defensemen in their lineup, they defend better than they have in the past,” one coach said when assessing the Bulldogs’ defense.

Since their blue line corps is young, coach Keith Allain and his staff have worked to make it difficult for opponents to find room to maneuver, which helps lead to those turnovers they are so fond of.

“They clog the middle of the ice well,” said one coach. “They block a lot of shots. They also cheat offensively, not in a bad way, but rather when they create a turnover, the center and the off wing are gone.”

The Bulldogs are not a particularly physical squad, and that is something the River Hawks could expose by forcing the game at the Bulldogs.

“You can lean on them physically,” said one opposing coach. “You have to keep them from transitioning by being physical with them.”

Considering how strong the River Hawks have proven to be night in and night out, they may be well-suited for this matchup.

Since starting the season 5-7-1, they have come alive, losing just three times since Dec. 1.

“After we played them, we looked at each other as a staff and felt they were a better team than their record,” said one coach whose team faced the River Hawks early in the season. “They are so disciplined within their system. They really limited us offensively with their strong defensive play.”

After being swept in a home-and-home series with New Hampshire in early December, the River Hawks found their offensive stride, winning nine consecutive games and posting four or more goals four times during that stretch.

Connor Hellebuyck has been one of the main reasons for the turnaround. In 23 games this season, the freshman has posted a 1.31 goals against average and a .953 save percentage, providing a stability that was missing in the first half of the season.

The youngster’s emergence on the scene allowed Scott Wilson and Joseph Pendenza to focus on manufacturing offense. The duo is tied for the River Hawks’ scoring lead with 37 points each in 40 games. Wilson’s 16 goals and six power-play goals are both team highs.

“They have really good depth up front,” said one opposing coach. “they make you earn every inch of the ice, and then they have a high-end offense. [In that way] they are built like Quinnipiac.”

For the River Hawks, that is high praise, especially considering the team is making the program’s first trip to the Frozen Four under second-year coach Norm Bazin. The praise is well stated given that the year before Bazin took over, the River Hawks won just five times.

The comparison of the River Hawks to the Bobcats is probably the last thing the Bulldogs want to hear. Yale faced the Bobcats three times this season, dropping all three games by at least three goals. In fact, in the ECAC Hockey third-place game, the Bobcats held the Bulldogs off the scoreboard.

It remains to be seen if the Bulldogs have learned anything from their losses to the Bobcats. They will need to get past the River Hawks if they wish to set up one more potential matchup with their conference brothers.