Lowell rolls into Northeast Regional

If Saturday's Hockey East final in Boston proved anything, it was that everyone loves a winner. UMass Lowell, just two years past missing the league playoffs altogether, had its fair share of the 13,738 fans at TD Garden, matching the Boston University faithful chant-for-chant during the River Hawks' gripping 1-0 championship-clinching victory over the Terriers.

On Friday, the River Hawks will take to the ice at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, N.H. against Wisconsin, a short 32 miles north of the UMass Lowell campus. At stake is the a birth in the regional finals, and the possibility of the River Hawks first-ever trip to the Frozen Four. Lowell's second-year coach Norman Bazin said he expects a home-crowd atmosphere.

"We're ecstatic that we're able to allow our fans to become part of the experience," he said. "It allows the River Hawk Nation to be part of our run, and it can't do anything but help us.

"[Manchester] could be one of the great sites in the NCAA Tournament," said Bazin, who led the River Hawks to the East Regional in Bridgewater, Mass., last season. "Our fans have been great all year long. Both the students and community really bring it to life. We're ecstatic they get to share in this opportunity with us and give us a lift."

The River Hawks (26-10-2), the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Northeast Regional, won't mind any edge they can find, as they face one of the hottest teams in college hockey, the Wisconsin Badgers (22-12-7). Mike Eaves' Badgers roared through the WCHA playoffs, vaulting from fourth place to claim the league's Final Five playoff championship.

That run helped erase any memories of Wisconsin's dismal 1-7-2 start to the season. The Badgers are 21-5-2 since Dec. 13, and have many hockey observers considering them one of the most dangerous teams in the tournament. Not to be outdone, the UML River Hawks have gone 22-3-1 since Dec. 8.

"Wisconsin is going to be a great opponent. We feel our bracket is chock full of great teams," said Bazin. "We feel Hockey East has been such a great league this year that it has prepared us well. They're the WHCA Champions. They're going to give all we can handle, we're sure of that."

Though Lowell hasn't lined up against the Badgers since 1989, when the River Hawks were called the Chiefs, Bazin said he knows Wisconsin's culture.

"Having been at Colorado College for eight years, I'm familiar with what they do. Team defense is their pillar," said Bazin. "They have strong goalkeeping and great team defense."

Like the River Hawks and their outstanding freshman goaltender, Connor Hellebuyck (18-2-0, with a 1.39 goals against average and .949 save percentage), who took MVP honors in the Hockey East tournament, the Badgers are solid between the pipes. Wisconsin's sophomore goaltender Joel Rumpel is 16-8-4 with a 1.85 GAA and a .933 save percentage.

Bazin said he's been impressed with his young squad's composure, especially in two one-goal victories in the Hockey East semifinals and finals.

"I think it's been very strong the whole second half [of the season]. Our goaltending has been stellar, no question," he said. "Our defense, with some added size, has kept some shots outside and when you do that you have a chance. They're pretty poised under pressure. They're playing beyond their years right now. Chad [Ruhwedel] has certainly led the way and has been a calming influence for the kids."

While Bazin said the play of his young squad has been encouraging, he knows that the key to the River Hawks offense still runs through guys who were with him in Bridgewater last year, notably forwards Riley Whetmore, Joseph Pendenza, Scott Wilson, and Derek Arnold (Wilson got the game-winner against Providence in the Hockey East semis, while Arnold's lone goal was the difference in the finals).

If the River Hawks get past the Badgers, it sets up the possibility of an all-Hockey East regional final, with the host UNH Wildcats (19-11-7) taking on the Denver Pioneers (20-13-5) in the other semifinal. The Wildcats have already faced the Pioneers this season, in Denver, pinning a 6-4 loss of George Gwozdecky's squad.

"We know a little bit about Denver from playing out there on Thanksgiving," said UNH coach Dick Umile. "We were able to get a win after falling behind 3-0. That was probably a very important time for our team. Playing Colorado College and Denver really brought the team together.

"George plays a more defensive style with good transition opportunities off good defense," he said. "We need to make sure we can control odd-man rushes and face-off plays, areas where you can hurt yourself and beat yourself. They've got it all. They've got balance throughout their team, experience, tradition, so it should be a heck of a game."

However, Umile has been concerned with his squad's inconsistency over the second half of the season, and said he hopes the Wildcats can take advantage of the extra practice after getting eliminated from the Hockey east playoffs by Providence.

"Overall we know what we are capable of doing; that we need to put together 60-minute games and not have lapses," he said. "Sometimes it's the way the puck bounces, but I don't think that's taken away from our confidence."

New Hampshire's senior class, including captain Connor Hardowa, Brett Kostolansky, and forwards Austin Block, John Henrion, and Scott Pavelski could play a crucial role.

"They've been a strong class, and they were determined after not making it to the NCAAs as juniors last year to get us back in there," said Umile. "They are a big reason why we've made it back to the NCAA tournament."