NCAA Tournament Northeast Regional Final: Boston College vs. UMass-Lowell Preview

Emily Fahey, The Heights

Today at 5 PM, two of the nation's very best teams square off in the Hockey East championship game that never came to fruition. Only one will make it to Philadelphia.

Despite the fact that Lowell has put together some good seasons in recent years, contending for hardware in 2009, 2012, 2013, and this year, it's been a long, long time since the Eagles and the Riverhawks met in a game of major consequence. Not since 2001, when BC beat Lowell 5-1 in the Hockey East semifinals, have these two schools met in tournament play.

Perhaps that's why Grant and I always point out that there's not a lot of hatred in these games when BC and Lowell get together - it's usually just good, enjoyable hockey. Maybe that all ends today.

Today's Northeast Regional final has all the makings of a classic. As we all know, BC has the nation's most prolific offense, while Lowell has the NCAA's top defense and (almost unarguably at this point) the country's best goaltender in Connor Hellebuyck. For my money, these are two of the four best teams in the country, and neither team really deserves to have their season end at this stage.

Looking strictly at the regular season matchups between these two teams, and making a snap judgement based on yesterday's games, it would be easy to call BC a slight favorite  (though I don't necessarily think that would be accurate). BC's 3-0 win over Lowell on February 21 was one of the Eagles' most complete performances of the year, with most of Lowell's chances being pretty non-threatening, and with BC matching a Lowell team known for its hustle and physicality hit for hit.

BC continued to take the air out of Lowell for two periods the next day at Tsongas Center, outshooting UML 29-17 through two periods and carrying a 2-0 lead into the break. Perhaps most impressively was that multiple lines got in on the act; three different lines scored in the Friday night game, and Ryan Fitzgerald contributed the second goal on Saturday night. But it all went awry in the third period in Lowell, with the Hawks beating Demko twice in a three minute span to force OT, ending BC's winning streak with a 2-2 tie.

Yesterday in Worcester, BC looked like a team absolutely possessed after two frustrating weeks off following the Hockey East quarterfinal loss to Notre Dame. From the word go, the line of Gaudreau, Arnold, and Hayes completely overwhelmed Denver. But it wasn't just those guys contributing to the whitewashing - the other lines did a great job of keeping the puck in deep, generating chances, and giving Denver absolutely nothing.

Lowell, on the other hand, was locked in to a pretty even-looking matchup against Minnesota State. Lowell was the much faster team and certainly appeared to have more in the skill department, but Minnesota State played a great puck possession game in the second and third periods to generate a lot of chances, while getting outstanding goaltending from Cole Huggins to turn aside a number of chances Lowell got in transition. However, you need really exceptional chances to beat Hellebuyck, and that didn't happen for the Mavericks - the Lowell D limited grade A opportunities, and Hellebuyck pretty much never gives up juicy rebounds.

There are a couple things that really worry me about this matchup for BC. I think Lowell's strengths really match well for them with some of BC's weaknesses. Lowell generated most of its best opportunities yesterday and at the Garden in transition, putting pressure on defensemen and forcing turnovers. Lowell absolutely feasted on some ill-advised D-to-D passes in the neutral zone by Minnesota State, and also anticipated and created chances off of the occasions when Minnesota State tried to force a bad pass through traffic.

Some of BC's defensemen occasionally have that tendency to force a bad pass or carry the puck a little too long when there's nothing there, and Lowell will certainly have their chances to pounce and create chances on the break like we saw Notre Dame do against BC. It'll be up to Thatcher Demko to come up big in those spots, while it will be key for the blue liners of BC to not make too many sloppy mistakes; Lowell will punish you the way a slower and less fenacious team will not.

The flip side of Lowell's ability to generate odd man rushes and breakouts is that quick saves or missed shots could lead to open ice opportunities the other way for BC. Minnesota State was never really able to capitalize on those chances yesterday, as they just did not have much in terms of team speed. Whenever it looked like they were perhaps generating an odd-man opportunity, Lowell's backcheckers came in like a bat out of hell and quickly neutralized the situation.

Obviously, the other really worrisome thing about facing Lowell is trying to solve Hellebuyck. As has been said many times here and elsewhere, Hellebuyck is the perfect playoff goaltender because he's so poised and confident and always seems to keep things under control. He's huge, and the way he plays makes him seem even bigger. Rebounds are rare. Usually against a great goalie you would say something like "you've got to move him side to side and try to create an opening" but that doesn't really apply against this guy either. He moves so well laterally, and doesn't have far to go because of his size. He never gets out of position, so it's not like a good cross-ice pass would leave him out to lunch. For Minnesota State yesterday, it took a lucky break of the puck bouncing off the end boards and flying back in front of the net to beat Hellebuyck, and that came with 12 seconds left in the game. I wouldn't be surprised to see BC go intentionally wide with point shots to try to create chances like that; DCU Center's boards appear to be pretty bouncy, and the Eagles have a history of trying plays like that Conte Forum, which also has active boards.

I'm not going to make a bold prediction on the outcome of today's game, but I will say this: it probably won't be like yesterday with the first line running rampant. I was hoping Minnesota State would get past Lowell yesterday once BC won, because like Denver, the Mavericks have simply never seen a player as good as Johnny Gaudreau or a line as fearsome as BC's first line. That isn't the case with Lowell. They have faced Gaudreau 8 times, and have plenty of film and familiarity with what the top line can do. I don't expect those guys to dominate the game today; it will need to be a full team effort, with offensive contributions from multiple lines and from the defensemen. The cliche about Lowell - get ready to hear it said about 23,000 times today if you're watching the broadcast on TV - is that they "have four second lines," which sounds about right. That means that all of BC's lines need to be ready to defend well because there's no letting up against any of Lowell's units.

Game time today at the DCU Center is 5 P.M. on ESPNU. It should be a good one.

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