With one of the craziest quarterfinal rounds in league history in the past, Hockey East can look forward to championship weekend with three of its top four seeds — Massachusetts-Lowell, Providence and New Hampshire — all reaching the TD Garden.
The fourth club, eighth seed Notre Dame, should hardly be viewed as an upset despite beating a Boston College team that was on a 17-1-2 run entering the postseason.
Hockey East playoffs
See the tournament bracket and get links to schedules and stories at Hockey East Playoff Central.
To depict how close things were, there was a point late in Sunday’s Game 3s that all games were either tied or a one-goal game.
This should set up one of the most unpredictable championship weekends for Hockey East. No one would be surprised if Notre Dame — again, as an eighth seed — became the first team below a four seed to win the league title.
Similarly, those who understand the history of this tournament also understand the story line of which teams are not in Boston.
That would be the Boston teams. For the first time in league history, none of the three Boston teams — Boston College, Boston University or Northeastern — has reached the semifinals. And not surprisingly, the mileage traveled to this year’s tournament will crush any previous record. Of course, Notre Dame making the field alone helps that cause.
Will all this in mind, here is a breakdown of the two semifinal games as I see them:
(8) Notre Dame vs. (2) Massachusetts-Lowell
5 p.m. EDT Friday, TD Garden (NESN, NBCSN)
Season series: Lowell leads 2-0
Past postseason history: None
For Notre Dame and Lowell to meet in Friday’s first semifinal represents a bit of history, not just for Hockey East but also for college hockey. For what might be the first time in NCAA hockey history, two reigning league champions meet in a conference tournament.
Lowell is the defending Hockey East tournament champion, while Notre Dame, lest we forget, won the final CCHA title a year ago.
Two programs with tournament-tested teams, however, is hardly where the similarities end.
Notre Dame and Lowell play similar styles of hockey. Fans may say both teams are defensive-oriented. Both coaches, however, use a different word to describe their team.
“I mind being called defensive, because I really believe that we’re more of a puck-possession team,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson.
His coaching counterpart, Norm Bazin, uses the term puck possession so often that you might believe he has a player on the team by the same name.
The fact is both of these teams recognize the importance of possessing the puck. The transition from defense, the first pass in a breakout, good movement through the neutral zone and a perfect cycle in the offensive zone are what excites both of these coaches.
Understand that both of these teams can score transition goals, and do so proficiently, but both also see an intrinsic value in spending the majority of the game with the puck on their stick more than anything.
How do you beat a puck-possession team? You have to be opportunistic. In that category, Notre Dame may hold a bit of an advantage seeing as the lineup for the Irish is laden with talented scorers. And as solid as a defensive team as the Irish are, the ability for this club to score is hardly lost on Lowell’s Bazin.
“We felt Vermont had some good scoring up front, in [Chris] McCarthy and [Mario] Puskarich, and Notre Dame probably has that times three,” said Bazin, comparing the Irish to Lowell’s quarterfinal opponent, Vermont. “So they have multiple fronts that we have to be concerned with on the attack, and it’s going to be an extra challenge to monitor all those attacking, from that perspective.”
The River Hawks, however, don’t necessarily have to be concerned with where goals will come from. Despite facing a stellar goaltender in Steven Summerhays, the balance of the Lowell attack — four lines that play the entire game with no player possessing more than 25 points or 13 goals — has enough offense to win the game.
“We feel we’ve got a true team. I think our top scorer has got 25 points, so it’s probably nothing alarming for opponents,” said Bazin. “At the same time, we feel our offensive contributions can come from all four lines.
“I feel very good about the way [Ryan] McGrath is playing. I feel very good about the way Derek Arnold’s playing. I feel strong that [Joseph] Pendenza can contribute on any given night, but there’s also guys like [Evan] Campbell and [Michael] Fallon, and [Michael] Colantone, who have been chipping in. And we feel that if we can get four lines to contribute, we have a chance to win.”
If there is one story line to watch in this game it is special teams. When these two teams met in November, each of the five goals (yes, you read that right) scored in the series came on the power play.
Both teams are different since that weekend — Notre Dame is healthier and Lowell, as a team, is more mature on both sides of the puck. But given how close these playoff games can be, expect special teams to play a major role in this game.
(4) New Hampshire vs. (3) Providence
8 p.m. EDT Friday, TD Garden (NESN+, NBCSN)
Season series: Tied 1-1
Past postseason history: UNH leads 11-6; UNH is 2-0 vs. Providence in semifinals
One year ago, Providence advanced to the TD Garden and the Hockey East semifinals by virtue of a quarterfinal win in three games over New Hampshire. That hasn’t been forgotten by Wildcats coach Dick Umile.
“We’re familiar with each other. We’ve had great games with [Providence],” said Umile. “That goes back to last year’s first round. We went three games and all the games were tight or had overtime.
“They’re well coached and have a lot of balance. They’re a team that has a little bit of everything.”
The highlight of that little bit of everything that Umile references is Providence’s power play. Over the last four games, all against Maine, the Friars scored on the power play in each game.
Though the statistics on the season are below average for Providence (at 13.9 percent, it ranks 53rd of 59 teams in the nation on the PP), Umile has taken note that the Friars are dangerous heading into the round with the man advantage.
“I can tell you we’ve been watching the power play,” said Umile. “In the last 10 games, their power play has been excellent.”
That is hardly where Providence’s strengths lie. In goal, Providence possesses one of the best young goaltenders in the nation in Jon Gillies.
Though Gillies struggled a bit this season, particularly a five-game stretch in January and February where he was winless, Providence coach Nate Leaman said Gillies has persevered and is playing his best hockey right now.
“It was about getting his head in the right place, taking things one day at a time,” Leaman said of what Gillies needed to do to find his game in the closing weeks of the season. “His freshman year went so well for him that there wasn’t a lot of adversity for him. So [the winless stretch] was some of the first adversity that hit.
“Give a lot of credit to Jon. He worked his tail off to power his way through that stretch and he learned a big-time lesson that will help him for the rest of his career.”
For New Hampshire, the tail of the season has been about finding scoring depth. Early on, things were a struggle for the Wildcats. But as the season matured so, too, did some of the Wildcats forwards.
Everyone knew Kevin Goumas would be an offensive threat. But linemates of Goumas emerged in Nick Sorkin (20 goals, 40 points) and Matt Willows (18 goals, 37 points) to create what is arguably the best line in the nation after Boston College’s magic trio of Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold.
Injuries forced Umile to separate the three for depth. But a healthy New Hampshire team will appear at the Garden on Friday, and that line should be considered one of the best offensive lines remaining in the tournament.
“We finally have our lines together,” said Umile. “The team feels good about itself right now.”
New Hampshire and Umile also know that their team has a little bit more at stake this weekend in Boston than the other three. While Lowell and Notre Dame are NCAA locks and Providence is close to being assured a bid (better than a 96 percent chance), New Hampshire understands it must win the Hockey East tournament to have a chance to get back to the NCAA tournament.
“Everyone knows about the PairWise and it looks like we’ll need to win the championship to get in,” Umile said when referencing the national picture.
That hardly means this team should be considered an underdog in the tournament. With plenty of offense up front and a defensive corps that is skilled and can score, the Wildcats are a threat to win and keep playing past this weekend.