BOSTON -- As Hockey East celebrates its 30th season of existence, there will be a new feel to the championship weekend at the TD Garden. It will be the first time in league history that Boston College, Boston University and Northeastern are all absent from the semifinals.
No Boston schools could be a disaster for attendance, but league newcomer Notre Dame, a nationally recognized brand-name in collegiate athletics, will be going for its first championship in its first season in the conference.
Standing in Notre Dame's way in the first semifinal is defending Hockey East champion, UMass Lowell. The River Hawks, coming off the program's first appearance in the Frozen Four, struggled out of the gate, but quietly built a nice resume.
Norm Bazin's team is the highest remaining seed in the tournament and is a shoe-in to hear its name called on Sunday during the NCAA Tournament selection show.
Providence and New Hampshire meet in the second semifinal, a rematch of the 2013 Hockey East Quarterfinals, won by the Friars in three games.
Nate Leaman's Providence club has won six in a row, including for straight against Maine. That came on the heels of a midseason swoon where the Friars didn't play their best hockey.
New Hampshire needs at least one win, and likely two, to advance to the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats have had an up-and-down season, but have the experience needed to know what it takes to win at this time of the season.
No. 2 UMass Lowell vs. No. 8 Notre Dame
The first semifinal should be a battle of two like-minded teams that will look to own the puck possession battle on Friday afternoon. "We do feel they're similar," said Bazin.
When the River Hawks and the Fighting Irish met at Tsongas Center in November, a total of four non-empty net goals were scored between the two clubs. UML swept Notre Dame, 1-0 and 3-1.
"We had the luxury of hosting them in our rink here earlier this year, and they were two very low-scoring games," said Bazin.
Both coaches protest against the word 'trap' being used to describe their team's style, but Lowell and Notre Dame are both very strict in their defensive game plans when it comes to possessing the puck and forcing the opposition wide.
"I mind being called defensive, because I really believe that we're more of a puck possession team. My philosophy has always been, I've always tried to emulate certain teams in the National Hockey League," explained Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson.
"We study some certain teams, and the teams that we study are teams like Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh, and actually the Boston Bruins more recently. And it's all because of the way they play the game. All those teams are not considered necessarily defensive-oriented teams, but generally lead the National Hockey League defensively because they possess the puck," Jackson continued.
"Well there's no question that they're very good defensively. Both clubs are fairly strong structurally. They seem to be even stingier this time of year," said Bazin.
Another key element in this game will be the outstanding goaltending at both ends of the ice. Notre Dame senior Steven Summerhays has seven shutouts on the season and 13 for his career. The Anchorage, Ak. native has a 1.95 goals against average and a .928 save percentage, but more importantly, he has the ability to take over a game and be a difference maker.
"We feel their goaltending has been very strong all year in [Steven] Summerhays. I think he tied the shutout record over at Notre Dame. We do know how strong he's been for them all year long, and from our standpoint, we feel we've got equally strong goaltending," said Bazin.
UMass Lowell's goaltending certainly isn't anything to scoff at either. Connor Hellebuyck already proved he can deliver championships and deep runs in the NCAA Tournament last season and the sophomore from Commerce, Mich. is back at it this year. The Winnipeg Jets prospect has a 1.87 goals against average and a .938 save percentage with four shutouts.
Like last year, Lowell has been playing much better hockey in the second half. The River Hawks are 12-5-4 since the Christmas break.
"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.
Notre Dame is certainly saving some of its best hockey for the end of the season. The Fighting Irish are 8-1-1 in their last 10, the only loss coming in the second game of last weekend's quarterfinal series against BC. The recent surge of success has given Notre Dame some regained belief.
"I think [the confidence] just happened more recently. I think it stems from, when the guys do score a few goals here and there, it certainly helps their confidence offensively. As a team, I think that we're feeling a lot better about ourselves than we were, say, two months ago," stated Jackson.
"And that comes with winning. 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," added Jackson.
No. 3 Providence vs. No. 4 New Hampshire
Nate Leaman's Friars have advanced to the Hockey East semifinals each of the past two seasons, but have fallen short of making it to the championship game. Year three of the Leaman era could be different as Providence will be the favorite in the second semifinal.
"The first year we went up there we were maybe a little overwhelmed. We had guys that had never won a playoff game before. We had a whole team that had never played in the playoffs," emphasized Leaman, when talking about his first year at Providence.
New Hampshire, on the other hand, is a program typically accustomed to making trips to the TD Garden for the Hockey East Tournament and then moving on to the NCAA Tournament, but Dick Umile's team missed out on the Hockey East semifinals the past few years.
"We're excited to be going to Boston. We missed out the last couple of years. It's been a very, very competitive season in Hockey East. I think we're all aware of how good the league is, top to bottom," said Umile.
New Hampshire and Providence each have several high-end offensive players who can break a game open and each have defensemen who are more than capable of jumping into the offense.
The Wildcats, still without top offensive defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk, likely have the edge in experience. Seniors Eric Knodel and Kevin Goumas lead the defense and offense, respectively. Senior Nick Sorkin has enjoyed a breakout season while junior Matt Willows has also stepped into a bigger role.
Providence's leading scorer Ross Mauermann has been banged up, but he is making strides towards being fully healthy. He scored his first goal, and point, in eight games in Saturday's series clincher over Maine.
A pair of sophomores, Mark Jankowski and Nick Saracino, took turns being the offensive heroes against Maine. Jankowski, one of three Calgary Flames prospect on PC, had a goal and an assist in the first game while Saracino found the back of the net twice on Saturday.
New Hampshire junior Casey DeSmith and Providence sophomore Jon Gillies go way back. The pair have been friends for a while and Gillies backed up DeSmith when the pair played junior hockey for the USHL's Indiana Ice.
DeSmith had one of the better starts to a season that any goalie has ever had in Hockey East last year. His play in the first semester last season set the bar so high that his still-solid numbers don't really live up to the hype.
The Rochester, NH native has still been a key reason the Wildcats have won as many games as they have, and Umile has pointed to him being one of the best players on the ice on numerous occasions.
Gillies, a star in the making, backstopped the American team at the 2014 World Junior Championship, but the South Portland, Maine native didn't play his best. The United States lost in the quarterfinals in its bid to defend Gold.
Part of the reason was a lower body injury Gillies suffered in the series against New Hampshire back in November. Gillies appears to be back on track, mentally and physically, as the intensity of the season picks up.
"We had a lot of conversations, but it wasn't to refocus Jon. Jon is very focused. He's a kid that's extremely committed. He lives the game. He breathes the game. He loves the game. You don't have to worry about Jon's focus or his commitment," explained Leaman.
"Really it was just kind of about getting his head in the right place, as far as taking it one day at a time. I think 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," Leaman continued.
Getting back to his strengths has certainly paid off for Gillies as the six-foot-four netminder owns a 1.86 goals against average and a .941 save percentage over the last eight games. Not coincidentally, the Friars are 6-1-1 over that stretch.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.