No. 8 Maine (11-17-2 overall, 7-12-8 Hockey East) at No. 1 UMass-Lowell (22-10-2 overall, 16-9-2 Hockey East)
Thursday, Friday, Sunday (if necessary) at Tsongas Arena, Lowell, MA
One might think that the top seed in the conference tournament was unlikely to have a losing record against the eighth seed during the regular season. It happened just last season. The defending Hockey East and National Champions Boston College went 1-2-0 against UMass-Amherst in the regular season before dispatching them in the quarterfinals en route to the Lamoriello Cup and the ultimate prize in Tampa.
That is the position UMass-Lowell also finds itself in this season. The regular season champions went 1-2-0 against Maine, their opponent this weekend, during the regular season. One loss was in early November when the River Hawks were still struggling, and the other came on the only real disappointing weekend of the second half in early February.
Maine creates trouble for Lowell because the Black Bears play much the same way the River Hawks do. Maine lost so much offensive talent in the offseason that Tim Whitehead's team tries to emphasize defense first and not be overly aggressive on the forecheck. UMass-Lowell play shows a somewhat similar approach; they will bottle up the neutral zone, making it nearly impossible for the opposition to get a clean break into the offensive end. In other words, both team's strengths this season have been defense. Lowell ranks first in the league while Maine is fifth.
Lowell's defense is led by junior Chad Ruhwedel who has the best plus/minus on the team. Freshman Christian Folin and junior transfer Joe Houk have been the other two most reliable defenders for Norm Bazin's team.
The Black Bears have seniors Mark Nemec and Mike Cornell, both two very steady defensemen. They anchor a young blue line. Outside of them, Whitehead has been trotting out a very inexperienced group on the point.
Scoring more as the season went along
Lowell's scoring offense ranks third in the conference behind BC and UNH, but well ahead of Maine who was last place in that category during the regular season. Lowell, at 3.06 goals per game, averaged exactly one goal more per game than Maine did on the season.
The offense didn't come easy for Lowell at the beginning of the season. "We got off to a tough start. We were struggling to score goals, gripping it a little tight, but coach told us to keep working and we got on a roll around Christmas," said junior Josh Holmstrom. The junior from Colorado Springs has four of his 11 goals in the past five games. He and fellow junior Joseph Pendenza have been the catalysts on one of Lowell's top scoring lines. Pendenza, the team's leading scorer has 23 of his 34 points in his last 18 games.
The other big scoring line revolves around senior captain Riley Wetmore and sophomore Scott Wilson, the reigning Hockey East Rookie of the Year. Neither Wilson nor Wetmore have had the statistical year they're used to, but can be dangerous anytime they touch the ice. Wilson has a laser of a shot and has good hands while Wetmore is a very smart player who always seems to be in the right position. Junior Derek Arnold is another key figure offensively for the River Hawks.
Maine's offense has been much better since a weekend sweep at Boston College in late January. The Black Bears have averaged three goals per game in that span, nearly a goal higher than their season average. A primary reason for the improvement has been the elevation in senior Joey Diamond's performance. The Long Beach, NY native has tallied 17 of his 24 points in the past 12 games. Other than Diamond, freshmen Devin Shore and Ryan Lomberg possess the most offensive skill. Freshman defenseman Ben Hutton has been an asset with his vision and puck moving ability. The Vancouver Canucks draft pick has four goals and 11 assists on the campaign. Another player to watch is freshman Steven Swavely who has played some of his best hockey down the stretch. He has seven of his 14 points in the last eight games.
Goaltenders sparked change
Both goaltenders can be credited with leading their team's turnaround. Maine was off to the worst start in school history before elevating their play enough to make the league playoffs. Junior Martin Ouellette came in as goaltender and provided a real spark once he took over the number one goalie job from junior Dan Sullivan. Ouellette has a 2.38 goals against average and a .917 save percentage on the season. His numbers would be even better if not for such a young defense in front of him. Ouellette was 9-10-8 on the season, which was a steep improvement from Sullivan's 0-6-0 start.
Lowell's struggles were not as significant, but the expectations were loftier. Junior Doug Carr didn't play as well in net this season as he did last year when he was a second-team All-Hockey East performer. In stepped freshman and Winnipeg Jets prospect Connor Hellebuyck. The Michigan native has a 1.49 goals against average and a .945 save percentage. He's 14-2-0 on the season compared to Carr's 8-8-1.
Keys to the Series
- Maine must stay out of the box. The Black Bears rank 9th in Hockey East in both penalty kill and power play. Tim Whitehead's team must attempt to play as much of the series as possible at even strength.
- The inexperienced Maine defense needs to avoid turnovers and be careful with the puck. Outside of Nemec and Cornell the defense is very young, and nerves could be an issue in the post-season.
- UMass-Lowell needs to get out to an early start to erase memories of last year's upset loss in the first round. The River Hawks play extremely well with the lead and can clamp down defensively.
- Norm Bazin's club needs to come at the Maine defense with intensity. Getting the puck in deep and attacking the Black Bears blue liners could lead to turnovers and scoring opportunities.
Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.