UMass-Lowell second year head coach Norm Bazin has brought the program a long way in just two seasons. The number of program firsts this year is staggering. The latest milestone is the school's first trip to the Frozen Four. The River Hawks will be in Pittsburgh Thursday to compete for the school's first Division I NCAA Championship. UMass-Lowell's semifinal opponent will be the Yale Bulldogs from the ECAC.
As UMass-Lowell prepares for its first Frozen Four appearance, the focus will remain the same. Coach Bazin, an alum of the school and its hockey program, will preach team defense, a quick transition game and focusing on what his team can do best and not worrying about the opposition. All season long Bazin has emphasized the need to focus on his team and how the team can execute with less emphasis on a specific opponent. "We've seen some video on some of the way Yale forechecks, but we really just want to focus on our own game like we have all season," said junior forward Joseph Pendenza.
There is not just one reason for the incredible run UMass-Lowell is on. Freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has done his best impression of a brick wall; skilled forwards such as Scott Wilson, Derek Arnold and Pendenza are making key plays at the right time; and the defensive game plan is being executed to perfection. Most amazing about UMass-Lowell's success has been the team aspect as well as the execution of the coaching staff's game plan.
UMass-Lowell executed its game plan to near perfection in the Northeast Regional. Five of the six goals against Wisconsin in the regional semifinal were on transition plays with quick passes up ice leading to scores. "The defense has done a good job of moving the puck along and finding holes," said Bazin about his team's transition.
In the final, UNH coach Dick Umile was impressed by how fast Lowell gets back to set up on defense. Lowell's team speed is a huge factor and will be this weekend. The past two months Lowell has done a terrific job setting up their defense in the neutral zone and making it extremely difficult for the opposition to break into the zone.
Freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has been a big reason the defense has put up such gaudy numbers. "You get bored watching him. He's always in position back there it seems, but it helps with everyone buying in, blocking shots," said senior captain Riley Wetmore. "He just makes our job a lot easier," added junior defenseman Chad Ruhwedel.
Hockey East has taken home four of the last five NCAA National Championships. With how well Norm Bazin's team is playing right now, it is hard to imagine UMass-Lowell not making that five of six.
Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow Jeff on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation coverage of the 2013 NCAA Frozen Four.