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Hockey East Weekend Preview: Friars, River Hawks tangle in key series

UMass Lowell senior goaltender Kevin Boyle
UMass Lowell senior goaltender Kevin Boyle
Matt Dewkett

Providence and UMass Lowell enter this weekend's home-and-home Hockey East series with an identical league winning percentage of .750.

Before the 2011-12 season, it would have been almost laughable to think a matchup between the Friars and River Hawks could be the marquee series of the weekend. However, Nate Leaman and Norm Bazin, both in their fifth seasons at their respective schools, have infused juice and life into their programs that seemed nearly impossible when they took over.

There have been some big moments between the two schools, starting with that 2011-12 season. Providence, the seventh seed in the Hockey East Tournament, upset No. 2 UMass Lowell in a best-of-three series. A year later, en route to the school's first trip to the Frozen Four, UMass Lowell captured the Hockey East regular season championship on the ice at Providence's Schneider Arena on the last night of the regular season.

Fast forward to this season, and this weekend's series will once again have a huge impact on the rest of the Hockey East season. The two teams square off Friday night at Schneider Arena before moving to the Tsongas Center for the series finale.

On paper, the two teams seem pretty even, but the Friars certainly have the edge in firepower. UMass Lowell is more of a team that relies on the next man up philosophy.

Providence's third ranked offense will get a chance to test its mettle against the top ranked defense in the conference. UML is giving up a measly 1.29 goals per game in league games while the PC offense is clicking at a rate of 3.4 goals per game.

A big key to this series will be how well UMass Lowell does staying out of the sin bin. The River Hawks won't want to give Providence's potent power play any more chances than necessary. With Jake Walman back quarterbacking the top unit, the Friars man advantage unit is lethal.

Despite mediocre penalty kill numbers, UMass Lowell has the defensive scheme and players to get in shooting and passing lanes to make it difficult for Walman to stand at the top of the point and tee off.

UMass Lowell and Providence are two of the better teams in the country, especially in the first period. UML has allowed just one goal all year in the first period of conference games, compared to Providence's four goals allowed in the same time frame.

The Friars defense loves to step into the rush. The skating ability and vision of PC's defense, led by Walman and Tom Parisi, allow Providence to push the pace, transition up ice and gain easy zone access. Counterbalancing that will be a UML team that likes to get on pucks quickly and force turnovers.

This should be a fun series to watch. Fans should expect two close games with an up tempo style of play. Whether it's Kevin Boyle for Lowell or Nick Ellis for Providence, the team with the better goaltender will likely come out on top each night.

Weekend Bullet Points

  • Jerry York will have his second chance to pick up his 1,000th career coaching victory when Boston College travels to Massachusetts to face the Minutemen at the Mullins Center in Amherst Friday night. If the second try fails, the third time could be a charm Saturday at home against UConn, coached by former longtime assistant Mike Cavanaugh.
  • UConn has been playing better of late, albeit against a weak schedule. The Huskies are 3-1-1 over their last five, including a three-game unbeaten streak heading into Friday's home tilt against Vermont on NESN. Cavanaugh's team has allowed just one goal during those three games.
  • The Catamounts will look to get back on track after being swept on home ice last weekend. UVM will be without Kevin Sneddon for Friday's game as he was suspended for his conduct in Saturday's loss to Providence. Last weekend's two setbacks against Providence marked the fourth time this season the Catamounts have been swept at the Gutterson Fieldhouse, usually considered a tough place for road teams to play.
  • Beginning with this weekend's two home dates against BC and UVM, UMass will play seven of its last nine Hockey East games in the comfy confines of the Mullins Center. That's a good thing for Minutemen fans considering UMass has been outscored 35-14 on the road in league games. John Micheletto's team has been outscored 19-5 during its current four-game losing streak.
  • Notre Dame looks to extend its 10-game winning streak this weekend with a trip east to face the University of New Hampshire in a two-game Hockey East series. Jeff Jackson's team has outscored its opponents, 40-16, during the 10 games. The Irish haven't lost since Nov. 27, a 4-1 setback against Harvard.
  • After a six-game unbeaten streak to close the calendar year 2015, UNH has now lost four straight, including two last weekend against Northeastern. Dick Umile's defense has taken its lumps, but the goaltending numbers have been less than desirable. Danny Tirone, who showed promise during the second semester last season, has just an .891 save percentage.
  • When Northeastern and Merrimack take the ice for a home-and-home series, it will be a battle of two teams going in opposite directions. After a lackluster start to the season, the Huskies are 6-2-1 over its last nine games while the Warriors are losers of seven in a row. Mark Dennehy's team has scored just nine times over the course of those seven games.
  • Maine lost an opportunity to build some positive momentum heading into its home-and-home series with Boston University this weekend. The Black Bears blew a 3-1 lead and had to settle for a 3-3 draw against No. 1 Quinnipiac Tuesday night at Alfond Arena. Red Gendron's team is 1-5-3 over its last nine games with the only win coming against Colgate.
  • The two games against Maine come at a good time for the Terriers, who are looking to bounce back from last weekend's loss and tie versus archrival BC. It begins a stretch of four straight conference games that, on paper, look to be ones that the Terriers should win.