Dear friends, Irishmen, and slideypuck enthusiasts of all ages: welcome to March Madness! No, not that one. I mean the March postseason where armored men zip around on specialized foot-blades and spend 60+ minutes whacking a small rubber disc--which travels at speeds that would get ticketed on the highway--at masked men wearing pillows on their legs. And would ya believe it, there's a particular group of these nuts who do all this while wearing shiny gold helmets and sweaters emblazoned with the blue and gold of Our Lady's University. If that doesn't get you pumped to follow the Notre Dame hockey team through this wild postseason ride, then I don't know what will.
(2) UMass Lowell River Hawks vs. (8) Notre Dame Fighting Irish
HOCKEY EAST SEMIFINALS
TD Garden in Boston, MA
Puck drop: 5:00 P.M. EST on Friday, March 21
TV: WatchND, NBCSN (national), NESN
The skinny: ND is #8 in the latest Pairwise rankings and are a projected #2 seed in the latest SBN-CH Bracketology. UML, who defeated ND in their two meetings this season (which was also the first time these two teams had ever played each other), has a nearly identical scenario. Winning the conference tourney might bump the winner to a #1 seed, but both teams are currently locks for the NCAA postseason.
With the hockey team's recent success--especially after they became the first team to keep BC out of the Hockey East semis since 2004--we figured it was high time that we shine a spotlight on our boys and give them the attention they so richly deserve. As we've often done for previews with our other teams, we found someone who can give us the lowdown from the opponent's perspective. We're very fortunate to be joined by Evan Sporer (@ev_sporer), who's the Hockey East expert on the SBN College Hockey crew that's been giving phenomenal coverage throughout the season (go check 'em out!).
Alright, slideypuck fans--let's get to know our foe.
1. Notre Dame is a newbie in Hockey East this year, so a lot of us are still trying to familiarize ourselves with our new conference roommates. Can you give ND fans a brief introduction to the UML program's recent history, tradition, reputation, etc.?
UMass Lowell is definitely a Hockey East team whose stock is rising. Coming off winning the conference tournament last year, Lowell rode that momentum all the way to a Frozen Four appearance. A lot of that was thanks to Connor Hellebuyck, the team's goalie, who was just a freshman last year. Hellebuyck is still there, and the River Hawks don't give up much: they're the stingiest team in the country in terms of goals allowed per game at 1.95. It's a combination of really strong play from their goalies and making really smart decisions with the puck.
2. What are one or two strengths of this UML squad that might cause trouble for the Irish?
Lowell and Notre Dame kind of employ similar styles. What Notre Dame did so well against Boston College was strong puck possession and capitalizing on all of BC's turnovers. But Lowell is sort of the same way (Notre Dame is ranked 4th in the country in terms of goals allowed per game). So expect a very low-scoring affair. It's going to be an incredibly tight matchup, but I think Lowell's ability to score from above the circles and Hellebuyck's play in net could become problems for the Fighting Irish.
3. Let's flip the question: Which aspects of its game has UML struggled with this year, and what might they have to fear from ND?
In eight out of the nine games Lowell lost this season, the team failed to score more than two goals. In four of those games, they only tallied once; and in one game, they were shutout. So you can see where I'm going with this: If Notre Dame is able to keep it a low-scoring game (which all signs point toward), Steven Summerhays and Co. can definitely steal a game. Notre Dame's depth also gave Boston College some problems, and while Lowell is certainly no slouch in that department, being able to roll out two really quality lines is going to force [UML Coach] Norm Bazin into some tough matchup choices.
4. The game is tied near the end of regulation, and UML has time for one last charge at the Irish net. If you're Norm Bazin, whose stick do you want the puck to be on?
Well, during last week's quarterfinals, Christian Folin actually shot a puck through the net, but he's still not the answer. Joseph Pendenza is the team's leading goal-scorer and points man. My guess is that Bazin would be pretty happy if the senior got a chance late in the game to put the River Hawks into the finals.
5. If ND beats UML, they would play the winner of the UNH-Providence game. Can you give us a 30-second thumbnail of what ND could expect from each of those opponents?
New Hampshire is a team very much built "from the net out". As far as overall skill and depth defensively, New Hampshire might be the strongest team in all of Hockey East. But they're missing Trevor van Riemsdyk (brother of James), who is arguably the best defenseman in all of Hockey East. They still have Eric Knodel, who's a monster, Justin Agosta, and a really solid blue line overall. And Kevin Goumas, their best offensive player, is getting hot at the right time, and had a hat trick in his last game to eliminate Northeastern.
Providence isn't having the year everyone expected them to, yet they're still a top-10 team in the country. It all starts with Jon Gillies, one of the best goalies in the nation. The Friars also have a pretty dynamic group of forwards, with guys like Ross Mauermann, Nick Saracino, and Mark Jankowski who can all create for themselves. Seeing them go up against the Wildcats' defensemen will be a lot of fun.
6. What are your overall predictions for this weekend?
I actually shied away from predictions last weekend, which I'm kicking myself for because I had Notre Dame beating BC. I don't feel as confident about the Fighting Irish this weekend though, and just like how I thought Notre Dame matched up well with BC, I think the same can be said about Lowell going up against Notre Dame. It's going to be low-scoring, and I think Lowell will advance--keeping in mind that Notre Dame is still a virtual lock for the NCAA tournament.
In the other matchup, I like Providence. Gillies is having a down year, but he's a star, and if the World Juniors taught us anything, it's that he likes the big stage. I think Providence will pull that one out against the Wildcats.
Thanks once again to Evan and all the hard-working folks at SBN College Hockey. Make sure to tune into WatchND or NBCSN Friday evening at 5:00 P.M. and cheer on the Irish!