As I mentioned on Monday, the Hockey East quarterfinals lacked a lot of the drama that one might have expected.
Yes, UMass Lowell and New Hampshire needed three games and Boston University needed to rally twice against Northeastern. But in the end, all four home teams advanced.
Which, as upset-light as that scenario is, might be proper.
Remember, this was the first-ever three-way tie for first with fourth-seeded Notre Dame just a game behind (and let’s not wonder what happens if Notre Dame had the chance to play a third period against Northeastern).
So all of the battles of the regular season and necessary tiebreakers can now be set aside for a three-game tournament with the Lamoriello Trophy waiting at the end.
Here, then, is a look at the two semifinal matchups that take place on Friday.
No. 4 Notre Dame vs. No. 1 UMass Lowell
Two teams that each play a very structured game style will battle it out with different, yet similar goals.
Notre Dame looks for its first and only piece of Hockey East hardware in its final year in the league (the Irish won the final CCHA title four years ago, let’s not forget). Lowell hopes to return to the championship game for the fifth straight year, which would be the second-most appearances behind Maine, which went to six straight when the league was an eight-team conference in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
What Lowell needs to do to win: Establish their game, which is predicated on puck possession and patience. This can’t become a track meet for the River Hawks. They also need rookie goaltender Tyler Wall to be at his best. If special teams remain strong, that’s a big bonus. They also need to create problems for top-tier goaltender Cal Petersen.
What Notre Dame needs to do to win: Way back in November, the Irish made transitioning from the defensive zone difficult in a 4-1 victory over the River Hawks. That has to be the formula once again. Notre Dame also needs to stay out of the box and minimize the time that the UMass Lowell power play, currently third nationally, is on the ice. It certainly would hurt if Hobey Baker finalist Anders Bjork explodes offensively.
A closer look
That’s the word Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson uses to describe the River Hawks.
“There’s not a lot of teams who have a lot of success against Lowell,” said Jackson. “They’re a heavy team. They play a heavy game. They’re generally big and strong, physical and older. So they lean on you.
“That doesn’t play well for teams like our and the other teams at the Garden [this weekend] that are young and try to play more of an up-style run-and-gun game.
“They’ve given us problem because they lean on us.”
Jackson isn’t insinuating that Lowell is slow in any way, calling them “fast, but they play fast both defensively and offensively.”
But Jackson also knows the River Hawks style is somewhat unique.
“Their system of one guy high in the defensive zone and then using him as a stretch creates open space and a lot of speed underneath,” said Jackson. “They do it exceptionally well.
“I don’t know if there’s any specific strategy [you can use against it]. Frankly, this time of year, you can’t afford to be making major changes in the way you play to offset how an opponent plays.”
For the River Hawks, that rings true as well as coach Norm Bazin likely looks to continue doing what his team does well. Thus far, when playing the Irish, the Lowell system has worked. Lowell holds a 8-2-2 mark against Notre Dame since the Irish joined the league in 2013, including a 3-1 mark in playoff games.
“They are a very talented club; they seem to be very effective in several areas that they are traditionally good in,” said Bazin. “[Anders] Bjork has had a heck of a season, [Jake] Evans is clicking pretty well, their goaltender is their captain, he provides a lot of leadership for them in many different ways.
“But unless we bring our ‘A’ game, I don’t think a team will move forward without bringing their best game in the tournament. We see a whole host unique challenges that Notre Dame brings.”
One could argue that Lowell has the deeper offense with, as Bazin describes them as “four second lines.” Both teams have defenses that truly engage in, and provide significant contributions to the offense.
So the separating factor might be in net. Petersen is the experienced captain for the Irish while Wall, a rookie, still set the school’s record for wins by a freshman netminder (23).
Pretty even, on paper. That leaves Jackson hoping that Friday, itself, may be the omen.
“Hopefully being in Boston, nicknamed the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day,” said Jackson. “That will work in our favor.”
No. 3 Boston College vs. No. 4 Boston University
Boston College and Boston University have met so many times that, for many years, neither team could agree on the number of games played or the overall record (they now agree the teams have met 273 times and BU holds a 133-122-18 advantage).
This is the 13th time the pair has met in the Hockey East tournament and fifth time in the semifinals, with the Terriers holding significant advantages in each. BU has advanced past BC nine times in the Hockey East playoffs, including three of the four times they’ve faced off in the semifinals.
What BC needs to do to win: It would certainly help if BC’s offense continues to explode. A big part of that is getting to the net and making BU netminder Jake Oettinger’s night more difficult. Neither team has been strong on the power play this year, though each got it going a weekend ago. This could be where BC makes hay, particularly if BU takes undisciplined penalties.
What BU needs to do to win: The Terriers would like to stop the trend of chasing the game. Both games last weekend BU had to overcome a two-goal deficit. It’s nice to be able to do that, but the further you go into a tournament, the more difficult it becomes. BU also needs to have its big-name league award winners contribute. This is a deep, talented BU team that hasn’t always been as consistent as need be.
A closer look
What could be more appropriate than to have two teams separated by about two and a half miles face one another down the road from their respective campuses with a trip to the Hockey East title game on the line?
“This could be quite a rivalry game,” said Boston College coach Jerry York, whose Eagles face Boston University knowing they likely have to win the tournament to earn an NCAA bid. “Our season’s on the line, but we want to win a trophy this weekend. And our longtime archrival Boston University faces us. There’s a lot of excitement for both teams.”
Two rivals, BC and BU are quite familiar with one another. Since January 13, the pair have faced off three times, twice in the regular season and once at the TD Garden in the Beanpot semifinals, all BU victories.
But since the last time the pair played on February 6, a lot has changed.
It begins with the ends. BC finished the regular season down, riding a seven-game (0-5-2) winless skid that started with the Feb. 6 loss. BU wasn’t exactly red-hot either, closing the season 2-3-1 after the win over the Eagles.
But things changed for both a weekend ago. And for the Eagles, the change was dramatic.
In the final seven games of the regular season, BC scored 13 goals. Last weekend, in a two-game sweep of Vermont, the Eagles put up 14.
So what happened?
“Our offense had been in hibernation mode through February,” said York. “All of a sudden, during the bye week, we rested and we looked at our inability to score goals as opposed to when we were scoring goals earlier in the season.
“We just weren’t getting shots to the net and rebounds and people to the net. We really worked on that and it paid off against Vermont.”
A big part of the offense was the success on special teams. BC was 1-for-4 with two shorthanded goals on Friday in a 7-0 win. A night later, the power play went a remarkable 4-for-7.
“Our power play has really struggled most of the year and all of a sudden we were on fire,” said York. “We haven’t had four goals in a month on the power play. That was nice to see.”
For Boston University coach David Quinn, he would really appreciate if his team could play with the lead.
“We certainly would like to play 60 minutes and get off to a better start,” said Quinn. “That’s something we’ve been talking about and need to do if we’re going to have success and continue to move forward.”
Credit to the Terriers, they were able to find a way to comeback from the brink both nights. On Friday, Northeastern nearly struck to make it 3-0 in the first, which easily could have been lights out. But instead, BU stuck with their game plan and found ways to chip away, often the sign of a good tournament team.
And similar to BC, when the chips were down, BU’s power play struck. The same power play that had lacked creativity and execution came through in overtime on Friday and in the final minute of regulation on Saturday.
Talk about clutch.
While both of these teams have talent in each and every position, what could be the difference maker is which rookie netminder plays his best. Joseph Woll for the Eagles and Oettinger for the Terriers have been stalwarts for their teams. Each have experienced the TD Garden stage during the Beanpot – certainly an advantage.
Now, though, the goaltender that performs his best could be the one who helps his team advance.
For the Terriers, that would translate to a third title-game appearance in five years for BU. For BC, though, it could mean the difference between the end of the season and an NCAA bid.