A postseason rivalry resumes in the Hockey East semifinals

Brian Pinho and Providence play UMass-Lowell in the Hockey East semifinals (photo: Melissa Wade).

Before we move on to this weekend’s semifinal matchups, I want to take a second to recognize the efforts of Vermont, which pushed top-seeded Boston College to the brink in the best-of-three quarterfinal series.

The Catamounts had to win on the road in the opening round, sweeping Connecticut, and fell behind a game after losing Friday’s opener at BC 3-0.

But this team battled, and after tying the series, found itself in overtime in Game 3. Then on a three-on-one rush, Mario Puskarich’s shot squeaked through goaltender Thatcher Demko, but his skate bumped the puck off the goal line.

(You can see the play on this video below at 1:43)

[youtube_sc url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qEu_AbqH0dg]

Boston College scored minutes later to take the series, proving simply how razor thin the margins are this time of year.

Anyway, on to the semis.

UMass-Lowell vs. Providence

Season series: Tied, 1-1 (at PC 4, UML 2; at UML 3, PC 1)

When both Nate Leaman arrived at Providence and Norm Bazin become coach at UMass-Lowell before the 2012-13 season, not many knew that there quickly could develop a postseason rivalry for these two schools which, one season earlier, had both missed the Hockey East playoffs.

Hockey East playoffs

See the tournament bracket and get links to schedules and stories at Hockey East Playoff Central.

It started in year one for these two coaches as Providence, the seventh seed, went to Lowell and knocked off the second-seeded River Hawks in three games.

The following season, the pair of clubs met twice, once on the final night of the regular season to decide which team won the Hockey East regular season title and then again in the Hockey East semifinals. The River Hawks got their revenge, winning both of these meetings en route to taking home both the regular season and tournament trophies.

The last two years, the clubs have avoided one another in the postseason, but that matchup will be battled once again Friday in the opening semifinal at the TD Garden.

For the first time, Providence will carry with it the higher seed and will sit on the home bench. But that might be where the differences in these two teams end.

The reality is both of these clubs play a similar style of hockey, attempting to maximize puck possession and limit quality chances in the defensive end. While both have plenty of offensive firepower, each has balance among the four forward lines.

So preparing for the other might make each team feel like it is preparing to face itself.

“I think you have a bunch of kids that compete very hard every game,” said Bazin. “Space is going to be limited out there, people are going to be doing a good job with the details of the game and there is going to be a lot of physical play. Given those two similarities of a physical play and taking away time and space, it is typical playoff-style hockey.”

“I think both teams play very hard, there’s no doubt about that,” said Leaman. “Both teams play pretty well defensively. Both teams have very good goaltending. It’s going to be a heck of a matchup.

“As far as style, I think [Lowell] plays hard, they try to play fast, they try to control the pace of the game. I think it’s good hockey.”

One major story line on Friday may be more about the players off the ice as those on it. On Wednesday, Providence announced that stellar defenseman Jake Walman, who has battled injury since the midpoint in the season, is undergoing season-ending surgery. The Friars were 2-2 midway through the season without the blueliner but have won the last five games since he was re-injured on Feb. 19.

Northeastern vs. Boston College

Zach Aston-Reese leads Northeastern with 40 points (photo: Melissa Wade).

Season series: BC leads 1-0-1 (NU 3, at BC 3; BC 4, at NU 3)

With Northeastern on an unpredictable run in its last 21 games, going 18-1-2 in the stretch, Friday’s semifinal against Boston College might be about a lot more than trying to reach the Hockey East title game for the first time in nearly 30 years.

After beginning the year 2-12-3, the Huskies have used their 21-game run to move squarely on the NCAA bubble. A win on Friday could go a long way to helping Northeastern qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time under fifth-year coach Jim Madigan.

Don’t blame Madigan, however, if he hasn’t had much time to even think about an NCAA bid.

“Obviously given our start, we really haven’t focused in on [the NCAA tournament] at all,” said Madigan. “Since Christmas time, as a coaching staff, the path was clear that to get to the national tournament, the path was going to have to be to win the Hockey East championship.

“We might have increased those opportunities now with a great second-half run.”

Indeed, that is the case for the Huskies, who moved all the way to 14th in the PairWise Rankings after a two-game road sweep of Notre Dame last weekend. Without a win on Friday and with some help from teams like Michigan, Quinnipiac and Harvard, Northeastern can still earn that NCAA bid. A win might make it a little bit simpler.

Of course, two wins, and the school’s first Hockey East tournament title since 1988, would work as well and feel a whole lot better.

“Our goal all along was to win Hockey East. That’s just a big accomplishment given the teams in our league,” said Madigan. “We know that if we accomplish that feat and goal, the national tournament will take care of itself.”

On the other bench, BC coach Jerry York doesn’t have to worry about an NCAA bid; his team locked that up a few weeks back. But the Eagles, who won five tournaments in six seasons before 2013, are competing in the semifinals for the first time since this year’s senior class was freshmen.

“It’s always difficult to get to the Garden,” said York. “We missed out the last two years with Notre Dame beating us and Vermont beating us. It seemed like a decade of not getting to the Garden.”

As for what to expect on the ice, it is difficult to look back to the season series to learn much about how these teams match up. The two clubs faced off in December and, although Madigan marks the tie and one-goal loss to BC as games that were part of his club’s turnaround, the way his club is playing has changed significantly since.

The biggest change has been defensively. Averaging almost four goals against per game when the BC series wrapped up, Northeastern has allowed four goals in a game only once since, that being last Saturday against Notre Dame in the second game of the quarterfinals when the Huskies surrendered two late goals to the Irish after building a 6-2 lead in the third.

“We gave up a couple of late goals because we got a little bit giddy, I thought,” said Madigan.

BC, on the other hand, continues to average nearly four goals per game itself (3.86, fifth in the nation) and has found offense from every end. Even last Sunday, when York said his team needed a lift, he inserted JD Dudek onto the second line with Colin White and Ryan Fitzgerald and the rookie responded with his first goal of the season with 9:30 left in regulation to send the game to overtime.

“The young Dudek had not played a lot for us this year, but in the last month of the season in the limited ice time, he’s impressed the coaches,” said York. “He moved up and good things happen.”

Both teams will look for good things like these to continue on Friday.

Handing out hardware

On Thursday night, Hockey East will hand out its annual awards. On Wednesday morning, the league announced its all-rookie team and its individual awards (excluding rookie, player and coach of the year).

That said, before ever reading the release (I swear, as I had to fill out my ballot for the Hockey East Broadcasters Association), I made my picks for first- and second-team all-stars, all-rookie and the three top awards. Here are my predictions:

Hockey East first team
F Andrew Poturalski, New Hampshire
F Danny O’Regan, Boston University
F Zach Aston-Reese, Northeastern
D Matt Grzelcyk, Boston University
D Jake Walman, Providence
G Kevin Boyle, UMass-Lowell

Hockey East second team
F Ryan Fitzgerald, Boston College
F Mark Jankowski, Providence
F C.J. Smith, UMass-Lowell
D Jordan Gross, Notre Dame
D Jon Gilmour, Providence
G Thatcher Demko, Boston College

Hockey East all-rookie team
F Colin White, Boston College
F Max Letunov, Connecticut
F Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, Boston University
D Charlie McAvoy, Boston University
D Casey Fitzgerald, Boston College
G Ryan Ruck, Northeastern

Rookie of the year: Colin White, Boston College
Player of the year: Kevin Boyle, UMass-Lowell
Coach of the year: Jim Madigan, Northeastern

And a final thank you …

As this is our last column of the season, let me take the opportunity to offer thanks to all of the loyal readers who read every week.

This is a great time of year that could include an unprecedented NCAA tournament for Hockey East. Thanks for coming along for the ride and continue to read, watch and listen to everything Dave, myself and all of our colleagues provide throughout the NCAA tournament.