The Hockey East semifinals are Friday, with the opening match (5 p.m. ET) pitting two of the best young minds in Hockey East. Lowell's Norm Bazin and Providence's Nate Leaman each arrived at their respective campuses two years ago in the hopes of turning things around. And they did, in a hurry.
Both squads made the league playoffs last year, with Providence edging the River Hawks in a three-game series. The two squads were at it again this year, with Lowell taking the season series, 2-1, but splitting the final home-and-home series of the season, with each team winning on the road.
"I'm not sure this time of year we need too many reminders, but it never hurts to remind them of some of the failures of the past," said Bazin, when asked about last year's early exit from the Hockey East tournament. "Our focus is on playing well in the next hockey game. This time of year, all you have is the next game and we're focused on making this our best possible game."
With their quarterfinal win over Lowell last season, the Friars got to TD Garden and the Hockey East semifinals only to run into a BC buzzsaw, losing 4-2.
"As far as experience goes, it's something we are going to talk about today in the locker room," said Leaman earlier this week. "There is no doubt that our team, last year against BC [in the semifinal], was not focused in the first five minutes of the game. I think we gave up a break away and a 2-on-0 and they scored a goal in the first five minutes. It's something we are obviously going to talk about. Nothing helps that more than experience."
Coincidentally, the two squads also have two of the best young goaltender's in the league -- a pair of freshmen -- with Lowell's Connor Hellebuyck (1.49 GAA, .944 save percentage) and the Friars' John Gillies (2.08 GAA, .931 save percentage) between the pipes.
"Jon consistently gives you a chance to win every game. I think that's the biggest thing," said Leaman. "There's no doubt he has been our best player over the course of the year."
Hellebuyck, meanwhile, has simply been the league's best netminder, statistically speaking, since establishing himself as the team's No. 1 netminder. Bazin said his team's turnaround after a rocky start can be directly attributed to the goaltending of Hellebuyck and Doug Carr, and a renewed commitment to defensive on every player's part.
"We weren't that pleased with our special teams" against Maine in the quarterfinals, said Bazin. "The nice thing about hockey is that when you're full of yourself, you watch the videotape and then you're humbled. It's definitely important for us to keep improving, and special teams is one of those areas in which we're looking to improve."
The River Hawks are hoping to make the Hockey East finals for the first time since 2009, when they were edged by Boston University, 1-0. The Terriers went on to win the national championship, while the River Hawks went home. This year, the River Hawks, ranked fifth nationally, will return to the NCAA tournament. Providence, however, must win its next two games and capture the Hockey East flag to get the league's automatic bid.
"We have been a better road team in the second half than I feel we have been a home team," said Leaman. "We had success against Lowell and Boston College in their own rinks. If anything, I like the fact we are on the road and in a different building with a young team. I think it helps us focus better."