It’s often said that defense wins championships. When it comes to Friday’s first semifinal between UMass Lowell and Notre Dame at the Hockey East Championship, that statement seems to be quite accurate.
While both teams have a dynamic first line and a very good goaltender, it’s the men on the blue line that could make the ultimate difference when it comes to which team will move on to Saturday’s final.
Both UMass Lowell and Notre Dame boast three defensemen who have scored over 20 points this season. UML's Dylan Zink and Michael Kapla are second and fifth in points among defensemen in Hockey East with 35 and 27, respectively. ND's Jordan Gross ranks fourth with 30.
"In today’s game, I don’t care what level you’re talking, if your defensemen aren’t part of the offense and they’re not active, you’re going to have a hard time scoring goals," said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson.
Zink and Kapla, both seniors, have been staples on the Lowell blue line over the past four seasons, racking up 86 and 89 points during their collegiate careers.
"Zink and Kapla get a lot of the notoriety for good reason. They’re now the highest scoring pair in the history of our program from a goal-scoring and assist-scoring standpoint," said UMass Lowell coach Norm Bazin.
While the River Hawks have the luxury of two seniors and three juniors on defense most nights, Notre Dame has a younger defense with two juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen. Bobby Nardella, who missed six games at the beginning of the second half is back, giving the Irish a fully healthy blue line heading into the weekend.
"They’re a big part of our team offense as well as our team defense. It’s good that we have Nardella back. It’s good to have our corps of defensemen back," Jackson commented.
Notre Dame lost four of its six double-digit goal scorers from a season ago, leaving a lot of people wondering where the offense would come from for the Irish. While Bruins prospect Anders Bjork, Canadiens pick Jake Evans, and Andrew Oglevie have stepped up, the defense is responsible for some of the increase in offensive production.
"We’ve scored more than we or other people might have expected considering the guys we lost from last year. A lot of it is from our backend," said Jackson.
In addition to Gross and Nardella, freshman Andrew Peeke is a mobile defenseman who can skate up and down the sheet. Sophomore Dennis Gilbert has stepped up in a major way in his second go-around in South Bend.
"When you have guys who skate well and make good puck decisions, it’s not so much about them rushing up the ice as much as it is joining the attack on transition," explained Jackson. "On a lot of instances our guys have done a nice job at that."
Offense is harder to come by in the post-season when teams are playing with more urgency, and at times desperation. That fact won't be lost on either coach heading into Friday's contest.
"Trying to generate offense gets harder and harder as you progress to the end of the year. It’s important that we get some production from [the defense] which was key last weekend," Jackson said.
While pushing the pace, possessing the puck and joining the attack is considered key in hockey today, Lowell has one of the better shutdown defenders in Hockey East. Junior Tyler Mueller often goes unheralded, but he's a player who can close and take away time and space quickly. He has a good stick in his own zone and has good footwork and positioning.
"Tyler Mueller is coming into his own. He’s wearing a letter for us. He’s feeling pretty good about his game. He’s certainly more of a defensive player than an offensive player," Bazin explained.
Often times when Lowell needs to kill a penalty or preserve a lead late, the pairing of Mueller and freshman Mattias Goransson is the one Lowell trots out first.
"Tyler Mueller and Goransson have done a nice job. They’re going to continue to impress people going forward. Those two guys are effective," said Bazin. "You can throw [Chris] Forney into that mix also. He’s been equally strong the last few weeks."