Despite playing in the same conference as UMass Lowell for just the past four seasons, Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson is all too familiar with the River Hawks.
The Fighting Irish are 2-8-2 against UMass Lowell since joining Hockey East prior to the 2013-14 season, including a 4-0 shutout loss in the 2014 Hockey East semifinals.
"There’s not a lot of teams who’ve had much success against Lowell. They’re a very well-coached team and they recruit to their system and their strengths. They play a heavy game. They’re big, physical and older," Jackson explained.
Notre Dame is the third youngest team in the country, just behind fellow Hockey East semifinalists Boston College and Boston University. UMass Lowell is the 28th oldest team in the country.
"They lean on you. They’ve given us problems because they lean on us, but we’ve actually handled that a lot better this year," Jackson said.
While UMass Lowell has the least amount of NHL Drafted prospects on its roster among the four semifinalists, just two outside of the goaltending position, the River Hawks do an excellent job in recruiting players that will fit their system.
"[UMass Lowell] has good players. Every school has its strengths and weaknesses. They've done a phenomenal job identifying the type of player they can and should recruit," began BU coach David Quinn.
"They go out and get guys that are a little older. They don't just get older players. They get older, good players. We all have access to recruit those older players. They're big and strong. They're a tough match-up for younger teams," Quinn continued.
Jackson, who helped guide Lake Superior State to the 1992 and 1994 NCAA Championships, knows what it takes to win at a smaller school that might not be able to attract some of the elite recruits in college hockey.
"There’s a lot of similarities to what he does to what I tried to do at Lake Superior State. Back then we had a lot of unheralded guys too that played a heavy game. They were a good transitional team, but they were more known for their cycling and defensive play. He’s built a similar type of program," Jackson complimented.
Bazin has seemingly gotten more out of less than any other coach in the country since he took over at his alma mater prior to the 2011-12 season. But, as Jackson points out, a good coach also needs support from his administration in order to be as successful as possible.
"He had a plan when he came in. He certainly executed it. The system they play is unique. Only a few teams in college hockey utilize it. He recruits to it. He finds players that fit into that system," said Jackson. "Norm has certainly taken advantage of the resources that Lowell has offered. He’s probably done one of the best jobs in the country over the last several years."
It's often been said over the past six years that UMass Lowell's ability to execute the coaching staff's game plan is the reason for its success. Good gaps and layering in the neutral zone have made it difficult for opponents to transition and maintain possession. Forecheck pressure and being puck hounds in all three zones have been necessary ingredients as well.
Jackson points to a key component of Lowell's play in its own end, which allows the River Hawks the ability to transition quickly out of their own zone.
"They’re a fast team. They play fast defensively as well as offensively. They keep one guy high in the defensive zone and then using him as a stretch guy. It creates open space and a lot of speed underneath. They do that exceptionally well."
Jackson was frank when discussing the importance of focusing on his own team's game and not necessarily trying to game plan against what Lowell does well.
"I don’t know if there is any specific strategy to try to offset what an opponent does. It’s going to be more about our execution and trying to not give them those transition situations," Jackson began.
"It’s going to be more about our ability to try to manage the puck then it is about transitional defense which will be important, but obviously you want to minimize those opportunities," he continued.
For Notre Dame, this weekend presents the last chance to win a Hockey East Championship before exiting the league in favor of the Big 10 for the 2017-18 season.
"We’re obviously excited to get back to the TD Garden. We were there in our first year. We’re looking forward to the next challenge."
When Notre Dame and UMass Lowell finally get down to business at a little past 5 p.m. on Friday afternoon, Jackson hopes there will be a little luck of the Irish on his team's behalf.
"Hopefully, being in Boston, nicknamed the Irish, playing on St. Patrick's Day will work in our favor."