Hockey East Semifinal Preview: Providence vs. UMass-Lowell

UMass-Lowell freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck was a unanimous selection to the Hockey East All-Rookie team. - Walter Rossini

Friday's first Hockey East semifinal between Providence and UMass-Lowell will feature battles of two freshman goaltenders and two second-year head coaches.

No. 4 Providence (17-13-7 Overall, 13-8-6 Hockey East) vs. No. 1 UMass Lowell (24-10-2 Overall, 16-9-2 Hockey East)

Friday, 5:00 ET, TD Garden, Boston, MA (NESN, NBCSN)

When UMass-Lowell Athletic Director Dana Skinner and his counterpart at Providence, Bob Driscoll, announced the hiring of new coaches two off-seasons ago, neither could imagine the levels of success these new hires could attain so quickly.

UMass-Lowell became the first school outside of BC, BU, Maine and UNH to win a Hockey East Regular Season Championship. This was a year after a second place finish in Norm Bazin's first season at the helm in Lowell. Come Sunday, UML will be in the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive season, another program first.

When Nate Leaman took over at Providence, the Friars program had missed the Hockey East league playoffs for three straight seasons. Last season the team made the playoffs and knocked off the River Hawks to advance to the TD Garden. This season the Friars played for the regular season title in the final night of the season.

Both teams have their sights set on a Hockey East Tournament Championship this weekend. The game is a do-or-die contest for the Friars, since they are hanging on the NCAA Bubble.

UMass-Lowell went 2-1 against Providence in the regular season. The River Hawks won 2-1 on home-ice back in January. The two teams split the final weekend of the regular season with each winning on the other's ice.

Freshman goaltenders square off

"It's good to see the league is chock full of talented freshman goalies. I think it's really hard to score in this league," said Bazin earlier this week. This game exemplifies that.

Providence freshman Jon Gillies and UMass-Lowell freshman Connor Hellebuyck were both named to the Pro Ambitions Hockey East All-Rookie team announced by the league Wednesday afternoon. Gillies, a Calgary prospect, and Hellebuyck, a Winnipeg draft pick, are both showing why NHL teams thought highly of them.

Both goaltenders are capable of stealing a game for his team. This game could certainly come down to which goaltender plays better.

Leaman certainly knows how important his goaltender is. "Jon [Gillies] consistently gives us a chance to win every game. There's no doubt he's been our best player over the course of the year. He gives us a chance to win every night," said Leaman.

Stiff defenses

Both teams have combined strong defensive play with terrific freshman netminders all season long. Both teams try to bottle up the neutral zone, especially UML.

Norm Bazin was pleased with how his team's defense came on last weekend. Junior Chad Ruhwedel certainly leads the way for the River Hawks blue line.

The Friars have a solid defense led by junior Steven Shamanski. The Carberry, Manitoba native has very good vision and helps PC transition up ice. Senior Alex Velischek leads the Friars in the plus/minus category at +16. Providence has two of the best defensive forwards in the league. Kyle Murphy has a +10 and Tim Schaller was named the Best Defensive Forward by the league.

More firepower for UML

The River Hawks have the edge in talent ready to contribute right now. Providence certainly has some skilled young forwards, but the Friars aren't as experienced as their counterparts at UML.

Sophomore Scott Wilson gets a lot of the headlines as the reigning rookie of the year in the league and a Penguins draft pick. Juniors Joseph Pendenza, Derek Arnold and Josh Holmstrom have also had good years. Senior captain Riley Wetmore has been a more than solide forward for four years now, but he brings a lot of the intangibles that coaches look for in their leaders. "We could talk about Riley for a long time. He's as good a person on the ice as he is off the ice. I've been very fortunate as a new coach in this league to have a captain like Riley," said Bazin.

For Providence, a hero emerged in the quarterfinal series. Freshman forward Nick Saracino notched four goals and an assist. The St. Louis, Missouri native had only seven goals all season until last weekend. Freshman Mark Jankowski and Paul de Jersey are very talented, but young. They could certainly step up this weekend. Junior Derek Army and sophomore Ross Mauermann are the two leading goal scorers on the team with 13 and 12, respectively.

Keys to the game

Providence made it to the TD Garden after upsetting UMass-Lowell in the quarterfinals. Last year the Friars might have just been happy to be here. "There is no doubt that our team last year against BC was not focused in the first five minutes of the game, and they scored a goal," said Leaman referring to last year's semifinal.

This year, the Friars have more expectations. Leaman's club is on the NCAA Tournament bubble and must win in order to have a chance. They also have an advantage they didn't last year. Jon Gillies will be between the pipes.

UMass-Lowell is looking to secure a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. The River Hawks are looking to pick up the second trophy of the year this weekend. UML needs to use the skill in their top six forwards to their advantage.

Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.

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