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Lowell, UNH meet in all-Hockey East final

3/30/2013
The River Hawks and Wildcats will square off Saturday (6:30 ET, ESPNU) for a spot in the Frozen Four. Icon SMI

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- One of the refrains repeated by UMass Lowell River Hawks coach Norm Bazin during last week's Hockey East finals was simple but direct: "Why not Lowell?"

After a 6-1 dismantling of Wisconsin on Friday night, and a Saturday date in the finals of the NCAA Northeast Regional, with a chance for the program's first Frozen Four appearance hanging in the balance, the question seems more relevant than ever. "Why not the River Hawks?"

New Hampshire (20-11-7) knocked out the Denver Pioneers in Friday's nightcap with a come-from-behind win, 5-2 win, so Lowell will face the Wildcats in an all-Hockey East final on Saturday night, with the goal of improving a program-best 27-10-2 record.

"I believed in this team since day one," Bazin said Friday.

Lowell, however, started at a glacial pace this season, stumbling out of the gates with a 4-7-1 record. Among those seven losses were three defeats suffered at the hands of the Wildcats, the last on Dec. 8. After that loss, Lowell went on a 23-3-1 tear, the best in the country.

"They're a very gritty team," said UNH forward John Henrion. "They're a really tough team to play against. They're really hard-nosed. They're skilled. They've got some big, strong defensemen. And obviously their goalie [Connor Hellebuyck]. They've been playing their best hockey. It's going to be a tough test for us."

Given their success over the second half of the season, it's not surprising that the River Hawks are drawing comparisons to defending national champs Boston College, the team that Lowell edged to take the Hockey East regular-season crown. Many see Lowell's composure under pressure, and quick-strike capabilities, as a carbon copy of Eagles squads of recent vintage.

"I've got a lot of concerns [with Lowell]. They're a real good hockey team, obviously," said UNH coach Dick Umile, who lost forwards Kevin Goumas and Grayson Downing in Friday's win. "They're a very well-coached team. They've got balance throughout. They've got skilled forwards, they've got defensemen. We'll have our hands full."

Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said it was Lowell's defensive structure that reminded him most of the BC Eagles, who defeated the Badgers in the 2010 NCAA title game.

"They do a good job of fronting, getting in front of your guys and blocking shots," said Eaves. "The other thing they did well tonight was take advantage of moments when we gave them odd-man rushes. They put the puck away."

Bazin said as long as his squad remains committed to playing team defense, he likes its chances against any opponent. "I think the guys are truly believing that they can help out every single shift, and the forwards drive the bus," said Bazin. "When their back pressure is strong, we're very good defensively. When their back pressure isn't as strong, we're not as good."

"It's a team effort," he said. "We don't go very far when we're not aggressive. But when we're aggressive on the puck, we're a good hockey club."

After a dominating finish to Friday's win over Wisconsin, the No. 1 seed River Hawks appear to be sitting in the driver's seat. "They play hard, they play as a team, and they know what it takes to win," said Wisconsin senior defenseman John Ramage. "Obviously, look at their record. They are a hot team, too. They know how to win, and they showed it in this game."

In New Hampshire, the River Hawks face an opponent with good team speed, very good special teams, a solid netminder in sophomore Casey DeSmith, but an occasional penchant for turnovers. Just the recipe for an opportunistic squad like Lowell. Still, judging from his comments after the Wisconsin rout, Bazin is focusing on his own team, not the Wildcats.

"We concentrate on our own game, and we feel if we concentrate on our own game, we have a chance against anybody. That's been the M.O. for us," said the second-year Lowell bench boss. "For us, it's about executing our team systems. And we're focused on that."

Lowell's run may have the River Hawks feeling like world-beaters, but one of Friday's stars said the team won't get ahead of itself.

"We do have a lot of confidence right now," said Lowell sophomore forward Scott Wilson. "The coaches and captains kept us pretty level-headed throughout the whole run here. Even tonight, a great win for us but [Riley] Wetmore, our captain, just pulled us aside and said tonight, 'Enjoy it for five minutes, but tomorrow we have to do business again.' It's just been a process all year, that we focus on the next one."

The next one is a big one, with a trip to the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh -- the first Frozen Four appearance in Lowell's history -- on the line. Conversely, the Wildcats have been to seven Frozen Fours, the last in 2003, so it appears that history might be on New Hampshire's side.

To which Lowell's Bazin would probably reply, "Why not Lowell?"