Due to a scheduling quirk, the Hockey East quarterfinals last weekend featured three matchups of teams that knew each other intimately, with the opponents having just met in the final weekend of the regular season. The semifinals this Friday at Boston's TD Garden are the polar opposite, showcasing four teams -- UMass Lowell, Notre Dame, Providence and New Hampshire -- that may need to reintroduce themselves.
Stranger still, for the first time in the league's 30-year history, there won't be a single local school playing at the Garden, with Boston College, Northeastern, and Boston University all getting bounced in earlier rounds.
In the opening game, the 2nd-seeded Lowell River Hawks take on the 8th-seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish in only the third meeting ever between the two programs. The first two games took place just before Thanksgiving last fall, with the River Hawks sweeping a pair at home against the Irish.
The nightcap boasts two founding members of Hockey East -- 3rd-seeded Providence and 4th-seeded New Hampshire -- that share a long history, but haven't seen each other since late November, when the squads split two games in Rhode Island.
UMass Lowell (23-10-4) vs. Notre Dame (23-13-2), 5 p.m.
The Irish are racking up the frequent-flyer miles to the Commonwealth's capital this month. This weekend marks the third time in the past four weeks that the Notre Dame hockey team has flown to Boston. But with a record of 3-1-0 against the Hockey East regular-season champion Boston College Eagles in those games, the Irish appear road-worthy.
"You do worry a little bit about the travel aspect of things, especially with the academic load these kids have, the emphasis is all about taking care of their school work early in the week this week," said ND coach Jeff Jackson. "But I worry about the overall mental fatigue more than the physical fatigue."
Expect adrenaline to compensation for any potential lack of sleep, as the Irish pay their first-ever visit to the TD Garden. Waiting for them is a Lowell team that left the Garden last spring hoisting the Lamoriello Trophy as tournament champions. The River Hawks earned their spot in the semifinals by ousting Vermont last weekend. ND forward Bryan Rust, fresh off dispatching BC, said Lowell was a carbon copy of the fleet, rugged Irish. His coach agreed.
"There's probably going to be some similarities between the two teams, and I don't think it's going to be a snooze-fest," said Jackson. "I think it's going to probably be a good hockey game with good tempo, because both teams do play well defensively but they transition well. It could be a lot more entertaining than people might imagine."
The defending Hockey East champions have put together another solid season under third-year coach Norm Bazin, rolling four lines that all employ a blue-collar work ethic that mirrors this old working-class city.
"We feel we've got a true team," said Bazin. "Our top scorer (Joseph Pendenza) has got 25, 26 points, so it's probably nothing alarming for opponents. At the same time, we feel our offensive contributions can come from all four lines. I feel very good about the way [Ryan] McGrath is playing. I feel very good about the way Derek Arnold's playing. I feel strong that Pendenza can contribute on any given night, but there's also guys like [Evan] Campbell and [Michael] Fallon, and [Michael] Colantone, who have been chipping in.
"We feel that if we can get four lines to contribute, we have a chance to win," he said. "That's been our motto all year. It doesn't matter where it comes from, as long as we're producing chances and we're pushing the pace."
The River Hawks had some late-season success against Boston College by dumping the puck behind the Eagles defense, and Lowell's forwards will likely take a similar approach against a big Irish backline.
"There's no question that they're very good defensively," said Bazin. "We had the luxury of hosting them in our rink here earlier this year, and they were two very low-scoring games. Both clubs are fairly strong structurally. They seem to be even stingier this time of year. In watching their games with Boston College, I thought they were certainly opportunistic offensively.
"But they're very good defensively, so we're going to have to find a way to be strong on special teams, and try to get the pucks all over the ice," he said. "We feel good about our game, in how we're getting to pucks, and we're going to have an extra challenge here this weekend, as far as trying to get there first."
The River Hawks also have two terrific netminders, senior Doug Carr and sophomore Connor Hellebuyck. And while Carr sports a nifty 8-2-2 record, it's the youngster Hellebuyck who backstopped Lowell to its Frozen Four appearance last year, and has backboned his team down the stretch this season as well.
For the Irish, senior goaltender Steven Summerhays has been tremendous over the second half of the season. Combined with a number of key players returning from injury, and newcomers adjusting to the college game, Summerhays gives Notre Dame strength and confidence at all three positions.
"As a team, I think that we're feeling a lot better about ourselves than we were, say, two months ago. And that comes with winning," said Jackson, who wondered aloud after the BC victory how a team as good as the Irish could be ranked 8th in Hockey East. "Regardless of how you win, when you win games, it's easier to come to the rink every day and have a smile on your face, and that's the way it should be.
"You want the guys to be excited and energized this time of the year, and we all, as coaches, try to make sure that our teams peak at the right time of the season."
According to Bazin, the difference in Friday's first semifinal may simply boil down to effort.
"We may not have the high-end offense that you're looking for this time of the year, for somebody to be able to break the game open like [BC's Johnny] Gaudreau," said the two-time Hockey East coach of the year. "But we're certainly going to wear on our opponents."
Providence (21-9-6) vs. New Hampshire (21-17-1), 8 p.m.
Talk about a role reversal. Last year, the Friars needed to win the Hockey East championship outright to get a bid to the NCAA field of 16, and fell short with a semifinal loss to eventual champ Lowell. UNH, which Providence beat in the quarterfinals, got in based on its Pairwise Ranking. This year, it's the Wildcats, currently ranked 17th in the Pairwise, who are on the outside looking in, and will need to run the table to keep playing past this weekend.
"The team feels good about itself right now, and the opportunity we have ahead of us, playing Providence College," said Wildcats coach Dick Umile. "We're familiar with each other. We've had great games with them, and that goes back to the quarterfinals last year down at Providence. We went three games, all the games were tight, overtime.
"We haven't played since November, but we're familiar with the way they play," he said. "They're well-coached. They've got a lot of balance."
Providence, currently tied for No. 9 in the Pairwise, is close to a lock for the NCAAs, regardless of the results of this weekend. But PC coach Nate Leaman made it clear that he and his squad are focused on the trophy named after former Providence coach (and current New Jersey Devils general manager) Lou Lamoriello. Leaman said the team's two-game sweep against Maine in Orono to finish the regular season, coupled with a sweep of the Black Bears at home in the quarterfinals, has the Friars skating with some extra jump.
"When you play road hockey, it really forces you to be really detailed, and I think we were missing some of that detail at home," said Leaman. "We were able to go on the road for three games. We knew it was going to be a tough environment. We knew what a good team Maine is, what a quality opponent they were. It really forced us to play great hockey, and forced us to play together, and forced us to play some great defense."
Both of these teams can put up points, especially with the Friars recently rediscovering their power-play game after sputtering earlier with the man-advantage.
"Our power-play production has been excellent the past five games," said Leaman. "I believe we have six goals. We had three goals over the weekend against Maine, so actually, in the playoffs, we're 30 percent."
UNH, returning to the TD Garden for the first time since 2011, can score as well. Led by a rejuvenated Kevin Goumas (a hat trick in the series-clinching win over Northeastern), Nick Sorkin and Matt Willows, the Wildcats had the third-best offense, and third-best power play, in the league this year. Which puts even more emphasis on PC's stingy penalty-killers.
"I believe we're in the top five in the country on the penalty kill, and our penalty kill has really saved us all season when our power play has struggled," said Leaman. "There's no doubt that any game you play this time of the year, faceoffs, power play, goaltending, those things are going to be extremely important."
The goaltending matchup is also an intriguing one, with two former teammates -- PC sophomore Jon Gillies (whose father played goal at UNH) and Wildcats junior Casey DeSmith (who played together for the USHL's Indianapolis Ice prior to college) -- getting the nod in the nets. Both have had moments of brilliance, and moments when they've been less than stellar, this season.
"You don't have to worry about Jon's focus or his commitment," said Leaman of his prized netminder, who represented Team USA at the World Junior Championships. "His freshman year went so well for him that there wasn't a lot of adversity, and this was kind of some of the first adversity he had hit, and learning to get back to the basics when you hit adversity like that, and get back to your strengths. So there were a lot of talks along those lines, and give a lot of credit to Jon, because he's worked his tail off and kind of powered through that stretch."
Umile, meanwhile, praised DeSmith, saying: "He gives us an opportunity to win every night. You look at save percentages of goalies in our league, it's phenomenal. I think Casey is a .912 [save percentage], Gillies is at .920, and then we've got guys at .940, so his save percentage is probably seventh in the league."
"But I can tell you he's been very, very consistent throughout the season," he said. "He gives us an opportunity to win, and we've been pleased obviously with Casey's performance this season."