If UMass Lowell is going to make a fourth straight appearance in the Hockey East championship game, it will have to get through a Providence team that hasn't lost since a Jan. 30 setback. The River Hawks split the regular season series between the two clubs, losing 4-2 on the road and winning 3-1 at home.
UML, the 2013 and 2014 Hockey East Tournament Champion, looked very good last weekend, sweeping Boston University, 3-2 and 5-0, at the Tsongas Center.
Head coach Norm Bazin, in his fifth year back at his alma mater, is a coach that never settles and always looks to make adjustments and tweaks to improve his team.
Here are three keys to Friday's game if UMass Lowell is to advance and play in Saturday's championship game at 7 p.m.
1. Score first and play with the lead
It seems simple, but no team is better when ahead than UMass Lowell. It's been a common theme in the Bazin era at Lowell. This season the River Hawks are 14-0-4 when leading after one period, and 16-1-4 when scoring the first goal of the game. Compare that to 0-4-0 when trailing after one, and 7-7-1 when the other team scores first, and it's easy to see why getting off to a good start is imperative.
Just how good has Lowell been at holding leads over Bazin's tenure? In his five seasons behind the bench UML is 77-5-11 when leading after one and 93-4-7 when holding an advantage after 40 minutes. The River Hawks outscored opponents, 35-16, in the first period this season, their greatest scoring margin of any period.
Providence has only allowed the first goal in seven of its 36 games this season, and is similarly strong when leading. Especially with the two best defenses statistically in the league, that first goal will be crucial.
2. Special Teams
It might sound like a broken record to bring up special teams as it almost always plays a role in the playoffs. The River Hawks, not typically known for their stellar power play, converted on two of their four chances in the game one victory over BU. The two man advantage strikes buoyed UMass Lowell to a 3-2 victory and the series lead.
Leading scorer C.J. Smith played a big part of that with his ability to be the pivot on the half wall. The puck went through him on the right wall, and both power play goals came as a result of a pretty pass from the sophomore.
Bazin tends to mix and match lines, but one constant has been the top scoring line of Smith and junior Joe Gambardella. The two combined for four goals and three assists last weekend. If the two of them can keep up that pace, it could bode well for Lowell.
On the other end, Lowell has the third ranked penalty killing unit in the league and will have the advantage of not having to face Providence sophomore defenseman Jake Walman, who is out for the season with injury. Still, PC can really move the puck on the power play so Lowell will have to get to pucks and get sticks in passing and shooting lanes, something they have notoriously been good at under Bazin.
3. Kevin Boyle
As it's been well documented this week, three of the four semifinalists have goaltenders with .934 save percentages or above. UMass Lowell senior Kevin Boyle and his counterpart at the other end, Providence junior Nick Ellis, have identical .934 save percentages on the season.
Boyle, the UMass transfer from Manalapan, NJ, shouldn't have many doubters left, but the argument will always be made that Bazin's system makes his goaltenders better. That certainly is a proven fact. One just needs to look at the save percentage inflation of Doug Carr prior to Bazin getting to Lowell compared to after, or Boyle out at UMass before transferring to Lowell.
It's unlikely Ellis will falter as he's been a rock nearly all season for the Friars, so Boyle will have to be on top of his game and minimize rebounds. One bounce of the puck or rebound left in the slot could prove to be the difference in this game.