Hockey East's top two teams -- tournament title winners UMass-Lowell and regular-season champs Boston College -- are taking distinctly different routes to the NCAA Northeast Regional in Worcester.
Sure, the River Hawks may take I-495, and BC will probably opt for the Mass Pike. More importantly, though, is that the Eagles must shake two weeks of rust before their opening-round game. Meanwhile, the River Hawks are riding the momentum of capturing their second straight Hockey East championship last Saturday.
Three league tournament champions will gather in Worcester on Saturday. The Eagles, thanks to their No. 3 national ranking, earned the No. 1 seed and will face the No. 17 Denver Pioneers, the NCHC champs and the last team to win back-to-back national titles (2004 and 2005). Lowell, ranked fifth in the country, got the No. 2 seed and squares off against the No. 11 Minnesota State Mavericks, formally known as Mankato State, the WCHA champions who are riding a 13-game unbeaten streak (12-0-1).
Boston College (26-7-4) vs. Denver (20-15-6), 4 p.m.
Worcester's DCU Center has been good to the Eagles, who have gone 10-1 at the arena in NCAA postseason competition since 2001. Each of BC's last four championship title runs (2001, 2008, 2010, 2012) started in the City of Seven Hills. But the Eagles have also been rudely booted from the NCAAs as defending champs in recent years, including a 5-1 loss to Union in 2013 and an 8-4 battering at the hands of Colorado College in 2011.
The Pioneers were one of two teams (Atlantic Hockey champ Robert Morris being the other) outside the Top 16 in the national Pairwise Rankings to make the NCAA field. They were awarded an automatic bid by taking the inaugural National College Hockey Conference tournament with a 4-3 victory over Miami of Ohio in Minneapolis.
While the Pioneers are rolling into the NCAA Regionals, the Eagles have been home, no doubt stewing over their Hockey East quarterfinal loss to Notre Dame. BC coach Jerry York, however, was quick to point out that losing to the Irish wasn't a death knell for the Eagles' NCAA title hopes.
"The most major goal we all have is the national championship," said York. "One of the things we talked to our team about was that Yale and Quinnipiac (the 2013 Frozen Four finalists) last year were in (the ECAC Hockey) the consolation game. They didn't play for a league championship, and (Yale) won it.
"In Tampa Bay (in 2010), when we played Ferris (State) for a national championship, they got upset in the quarters and never played in the Joe Louis Arena (for the CCHA league championship)," he said. "So there's a lot of precedent set. You don't necessarily have to win your league title to win a championship. It probably happens more the other way. So that's where our mindset is now."
York was clearly more interested in making sure his team is playing at their best. It is the second time this month that the Eagles have had to deal with a two-week layoff between games. The first one didn't end well, as the Irish lit up BC, 7-2, in the first game of their quarterfinal series.
"When the goal is a national championship, that's a pretty big goal to have, so that'll keep us focused," said York after the Irish series. "We'll take some time off, because this has been a pretty tough series for us. Three games, three nights. But that'll be the least of our problems, trying to get them motivated. That (national championship) is what they all want. Now we just have to use our practice times correctly."
Secondary scoring will be a point of emphasis for the Eagles. BC's top line of Johnny Gaudreau (69 points), Kevin Hayes (56 points), and Bill Arnold (48 points) has been outstanding, with both Gaudreau and Hayes named as Hobey Baker Award finalists (the former being the odds-on favorite). Those three players accounted for almost half (68) of the team's 150 goals. Production drops off sharply after those three (captain Patrick Brown is next with 28 points), but the Eagles still have the most prolific offense in college hockey at 4.05 goals a game.
BC's formidable offense is matched by a stout defense, surrendering just 84 goals. The Eagles need freshman netminder Thatcher Demko (2.13 goals against average, .921 save percentage) to recapture his Beanpot championship form. He can't afford any soft goals, like the bad-angle backhander he surrendered to Notre Dame that allowed the Irish to back into the quarterfinal deciding game after BC took a 1-0 lead.
"I think he's going to be fine," said York. "He's a freshman goaltender who is earning his stripes. He's playing in some big, big games for us, and I feel very, very confident in Thatcher."
UMass Lowell (25-10-4) vs. Minnesota State (26-13-1), 7:30 p.m.
The River Hawks owned TD Garden in Boston last weekend, dispatching Notre Dame and New Hampshire, respectively, by identical 4-0 scores to defend their Hockey East tournament crown. UML coach Norm Bazin acknowledged that league play has his River Hawks battle-tested.
"It's such a difficult league to win in," said Bazin. "Every night poses such an incredible challenge, whether you're playing a Merrimack or UMass, or you're playing a BC, BU. It really doesn't matter. The parity is second to none. That's what makes it such a good conference. And we feel it prepares us very well for this type of post-season. And we feel it's going to prepare us very well for the NCAA postseason also."
Sophomore Connor Hellebuyck (1.73 GAA, .943 save percentage), who backstopped Lowell to its first Frozen Four appearance last spring, was again immense in the Hockey East tourney, recording the first back-to-back shutouts. Hellebuyck and the River Hawks have the stingiest defense in the country, allowing only 1.85 goals a game.
"Just the stops that he makes when we're in a tough rut, he really pumps us up and gives us confidence back there," said senior forward Joe Pendenza. "Hockey is a game of mistakes, and even though we're going to make a couple of mistakes here and there, we know he's got our back. Just like we have his back. It's a common theme throughout the team."
Hellebuyck, with his impossibly long limbs and a Lowell jersey eerily reminiscent of the Montreal Canadiens, is looking like a modern-day Ken Dryden, the man Phil Esposito called a "thieving giraffe" after he robbed the Bruins of a Stanley Cup in 1971. But Hellebuyck's defense is also similar to those great Canadien teams, with blueliners who play both physical and brave.
"What I remember is a bunch of guys in front of me, paying the price, and doing the right thing," said Hellebuyck after Friday's shutout win over Notre Dame. "A lot of blocked shots and a lot of ticks tonight. So my hat's off to the guys in front of me."
Up front, Lowell doesn't boast any superstars, but the team rolls four lines that can all do damage. "We're structured to have four lines that are always going to go at you," said Pendenza, the team's leading scorer with 29 points, one of 15 Lowell players in double figures.
"Game to game, you never know who is going to be scoring the goals. It's always usually somebody different," said the senior sniper. "I think that's very hard for teams to combat, because they don't know which line is going to be doing the scoring that night. It's all four lines that can get the job done. We just keep going and keep going, and sooner or later the puck is going to go in. But you never know who it's going to be."
Asked if the River Hawks were playing their best hockey, Hellebuyck was matter-of-fact. "I believe so," he said. "I still think we have more in us, because you improve every day, and you always have more to give. But the guys in front of me are playing great right now defensively, and they're producing a lot of offense."
The River Hawks will need to be sharp on both sides of the puck, as Minnesota State has outscored its opponents 50-16 during its current unbeaten streak. And the Mavericks have a hot young goaltender of their own. Freshman Cole Huggins has started 28 of 40 games, and owns a 21-7-1 record with a 1.91 GAA, a .924 save percentage and six shutouts.