The Hockey East Championship Tournament moves to TD Garden Friday night with the conference semifinals to be followed by the league final Saturday and while fans will be riveted to their seats inside the building that the Boston Bruins built, there will be countless more watching on television to see who will emerge as winners of the Lamoriello Trophy and while many a pundit has told you what to expect, this one decided to let the men who stand behind the benches tell you what to watch for this weekend.
In Friday’s first semifinal, regular season Hockey East co-champion Providence College (27-5-4) will face off against fourth seed UMass Lowell (23-8-5). For the Providence College Friars, the Garden holds special memories as that is where they won the 2014-2015 NCAA Division I championship. Ironically, PC has not won a Hockey East playoff championship since 1996.
The UMass Lowell River Hawks will be looking to reclaim a title that was theirs when they won back to back playoff championships in 2013 and 2014 before losing to Boston University in last year’s conference final. This will be the fourth consecutive trip to the Garden for the River Hawks.
The Friars and River Hawks have played each other nine times previously in the postseason, with UMass Lowell owning a 5-3-1 record including a victory in the only semifinal meeting in 2013. In two regular season tilts during the 2015-16 campaign, Providence and UMass Lowell split a home-and-home series, Jan. 22-23.
PC will go to Boston ranked fourth in the nation while UML is eleventh in the polls.
Friars coach Nate Leaman said in a conference call earlier this week that, while winning the Hockey East title is this year’s goal, his squad has been approaching the season one game at a time.
“We didn’t talk about the regular season championship and we haven’t spoken about the postseason championship,” Leaman said. “We just gotta take it week by week. I know that sounds boring and dull but it’s completely honest. I don’t want to put increased expectations on the team. I don’t want to put increased emotional stress on the team. Let’s go out and play. If you start to talk about that stuff, you lose the process and we have to make sure we’re taking care of the process. We tend to keep it simple around here. When you talk about that stuff, you just create more tension on things you don’t control.”
As for Friday night’s semifinal, Leaman is expecting another intense battle against the River Hawks.
“I think it’s going to be another Lowell/PC game,” the coach said. “It’s tight (checking) and both teams are competing really hard. We had a great series in the regular season so I think it’s going to be another hard fought game. I think both teams play really hard. Both teams are pretty good defensively. Both teams have very good goaltending. It’s going to be a heck of a match up. I think it’s going to be another really good game.”
As is the case with the Friars, UML coach Norm Bazin, has his team solely focused on Friday’s semifinal.
“We’re going to enjoy this game, we’re going to play for the moment and for Friday, only,” Bazin told the media. “A lot of Providence/Lowell hockey games come down to five on five hockey. Both teams are very disciplined and both teams play hard.”
Bazin went on to say that, in his eyes, his club and the Friars compare in two specific areas of the game.
“I’m not sure we’re (UML and PC) built the same way,” Bazin said. “You got a bunch of kids that compete hard, every game. Space is going to be limited out there. People are going to do a good job with the details of the game and there’s going to be a lot of physical play, so given those two similarities, physical play and taking away time and space, I think it’s typical playoff style of hockey.”
The second semifinal of the evening pits top seed and regular season Hockey East co-champions, Boston College Eagles (26-6-5) against the sixth-seeded Northeastern University Huskies (20-13-5).
BC enters the weekend seeking its 12th Hockey East championship and its first since 2012. Northeastern is hoping to take the Lamoriello Trophy back to Huntington Avenue for the first time since 1988.
During the regular season, the Eagles took three of four points from the Huskies, as the squads skated to a 3-3 stalemate Dec. 5, 2015, before BC took a 4-3 decision the next day
For those thinking the Eagles, ranked third in the national polls, will not be tested by the Huskies, guess again, Northeastern will skate onto the TD Garden ice as the hottest team in the league with an 18-1-2 record in its last 21 games.
Eagles coach Jerry York appreciates the effort it takes to reach the semifinals.
“It’s always difficult to get to the Garden,” York said. “We had gone, kind of on a regular basis, then missed the last (three) years and it seemed like a decade since getting to the Garden.”
Although, Coach York’s Eagles are the number one seed, he is preparing his squad for a strong challenge from a white-hot Huskies team.
“What Northeastern has done is just incredible,” said York when asked about NU. “A lot of credit to its staff. They’re, arguably, the hottest team going into the tournament. We’re playing at the very top of our game, right now. We’re healthy. We’re battle-tested and ready to make a run for this Lamoriello (Trophy).”
Huskies coach Jim Madigan has enjoyed watching his team mature into one that can play with any team in the country. He believes it all began to come together at the Friendship Four in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
“I’ve talked a lot about our trip to Northern Ireland as the catalyst to our turn-around,” Madigan said. “We went to Northern Ireland minus a couple of key players in Kevin Roy and Dalen Hedges and we put our emphasis on defending away from the puck and our kids bought into it and we lost a close game against Lowell (3-2). We came out of that game disappointed with the loss but we played well. The next night was a nice turn around and beat a Colgate team pretty convincingly (7-1) and the next weekend, we played BC and lost and tied but we played well so, we were starting to develop some good habits and our kids began to believe that if we play a certain way, we could play against the top teams because there were no two better teams in the league at that point than BC and Lowell. I think the second turning point to our season came when we played Quinnipiac in our building on January 2nd, we were leading and gave up a six on four goal with three minutes left in the game and we ended up with a tie and Quinnipiac was number two in the country and the kids were really disappointed and it was as if we knew we could go a long way if we put our minds to it. Those were the two turning points for me.”
Those turning points have carried Northeastern to this point and Madigan knows the road to the Lamoriello Trophy can be a bumpy one.
“We know, this weekend, we’re playing a school (BC) with a rich tradition, along with BU in this city, for hockey excellence so, we’ve got our work cut out. Our reward for beating Notre Dame (in the first round of the playoffs) is playing BC. Our kids will be ready and charged up for it.”
And there you have it. Each team will be equally charged up for some of the best college hockey anyone could ask for. Just ask the coaches.
Across New England, the New England Sports Network will produce and air the Hockey East championship weekend from TD Garden once again. The first semifinal game, Providence vs. UMass Lowell, will be shown on NESN in its entirety beginning at 5 p.m., while the second semifinal, Boston College vs. Northeastern, begins at 8 p.m. on NESN and NESNplus before moving exclusively to NESNplus at 9 p.m. The title game is set to be played at 7 p.m. Saturday night and shown on NESN. Across the country, NBCSN will also air all three games as part of over eight hours of coverage of the tournament on the weekend. Tickets for the 2016 Hockey East Championship Tournament at the TD Garden are on sale now at the TD Garden Box Office. Tickets can also be purchased online at http://www.ticketmaster.com or by calling Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000.
Follow ESPN New Hampshire’s NHL/NCAA Hockey Writer on Twitter at @ShawnHutcheon.
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