The fifth-ranked Northeastern men’s hockey team will play No.19 UMass Lowell in the Hockey East Semifinalsat 5 PM tonight at the TD Banknorth Garden.
Northeastern won all three regular season match-ups against the River Hawks, including 3-0 and 3-1 victories during a home-and-home series in late February. Northeastern hockey Coach Greg Cronin said the Huskies must generate scoring chances in front of the opposition’s net, establish a strong physical presence and limit UMass Lowell’s defenseman from joining the offensive rush in order to advance to the tournament championship on Saturday against the winner of the No. 2 Boston University – Boston College game.
“The speed of UMass Lowell’s defensive group makes them a big challenge,” Cronin said, emphasizing the importance of limiting the River Hawks’ transitional opportunities. “They play a smart defensive system and have three defenseman with 20-plus points, which is unusual.”
Team captain Joe Vitale, named Hockey East’s Best Defensive Forward earlier in the week, said UMass Lowell is “one of the hardest teams to play against in the league.” Keys to victory include establishing a strong backcheck and maintaining a positive mental approach, he said.
“We have to come out of the gate with more energy and establish momentum right away,” Vitale said.
The Huskies advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1994 by beating the Massachusetts Minutemen, two games to one, in a quarterfinal series at Matthews Arena. Its game three overtime win gavethe club 25 wins this season, tying the school record set during the 1981-82 campaign.
Cronin praised Northeastern’s fans for energizing the team – especially after losing the first game of the quarterfinals series 2-1. “I don’t know if we would have won the series if it was played at UMass,” he said. “The energy in [Matthews Arena] played a big role in our ability to manage a very slippery three-game series.”
He pointed to his teams’ maturity as the main reason for its accomplishments. “Our seniors’ confidence is unwavering,” he said. “We are the only team in the country that didn’t lose back-to-back games this season. That reflects our consistency as a group.”
Northeastern’s success in the Hockey East playoffs will impact its NCAA Tournament positioning, Cronin said. The Huskies could earn a No.1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which begins March 27, if they win the conference championship for the second time in school history and for the first time since 1988.
“It’s exciting to think we could be part of history,” Vitale said. “But we’re not going to look too far ahead right now. Our focus is on Friday night and we’ll take it from there.”
Fans can watch Northeastern play UMass Lowell on NESN at 5 PM tonight.