ORONO, Maine — University of Massachusetts Lowell hockey coach Norm Bazin said the Hockey East quarterfinal series between eighth-seeded Maine and his top-seeded River Hawks is not a typical 1 vs. 8 matchup.
“We lost two of three games to Maine. Who’s the eighth-place team and who’s the first-place team? We’re the underdog,” said second-year coach Bazin, who formerly assisted Maine coach Tim Whitehead at UMass Lowell.
“I’ve got tremendous respect for their team and coaching staff. They’ve got a lot of dynamic forwards who can burn you and [Martin] Ouellette has been as strong a goaltender as anybody in our league,” said Bazin, who authored the largest turnaround for a first-year coach in NCAA Division I history last season when he guided the River Hawks to a 24-13-1 record after a 5-25-4 campaign in 2010-11.
They are currently 22-10-2 and 16-9-2, including an 18-3-1 mark over their last 22 games.
They will play at 7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday at the Tsongas Arena in Lowell and a third game, if necessary, will be played at 4 p.m. Sunday.
Maine and UMass Lowell played three one-goal games this season, splitting at Tsongas Arena (UML 2-1, Maine 4-3) before Maine triumphed 4-3 in overtime on Feb. 3 in Orono.
Bazin said the keys to his team’s success have been “team defense and discipline. With those two things, you stand a chance of winning any game.”
The River Hawks have surrendered just 2.21 goals per game, which ties them for sixth-best nationally with Union.
They have just two seniors on their roster and have impressive scoring balance, as eight players have at least 18 points.
“We don’t have a first line or a fourth line, we have four second lines,” said Bazin, whose team has been paced by junior center Joseph Pendenza (12 goals, 22 assists), sophomore left wing Scott Wilson (12 & 17), junior RW Derek Arnold (10 & 15), senior center Riley Wetmore (15 & 9), junior right wing Josh Holmstrom (11 & 12) and dynamic junior defenseman Chad Ruhwedel (7 & 11) along with freshman goalie Connor Hellebuyck (14-2, 1.49 goals-against average).
Maine didn’t face Hellebuyck this season. Junior Doug Carr played all three games.
“[Hellebuyck] had a good stretch for us, no question,” said Bazin.
Bazin said Hellebuyck and Maine freshman center Devin Shore have made an impact and “any freshman who can make an impact [in Hockey East] is pretty special.”
He said he was pleased about winning the conference title for the first time ever and being the first team other than Boston College, Boston University, Maine or New Hampshire to do so.
“It is really rewarding for our school as well as our team,” said the 42-year-old Bazin. “To be the first team other than the big four to win it is pretty special.”
The Maine players know they will have their hands full but they also know they have had some success against the River Hawks and have played their best hockey on the road.
Maine is 5-7-2 on the road, including a 4-4-1 record against the top five finishers in the Hockey East standings. Three of the four losses were by a goal.
Maine was 2-9-6 at home, 2-5-6 in Hockey East.
“It’s always a close game with them, we’ve got a good rivalry going,” said Maine junior defenseman Brice O’Connor. “Obviously, they’re playing really well right now. Since the second half of the season, they’ve been on a roll. They’re going to be hard games. We have to make sure we prep the best we can.”
He also said they have developed a “road warrior mentality. No matter where we’re playing, we try to bring our best every night.”
Maine has won five of the last six meetings between the two at the Tsongas Arena.
“We always play well against them and we play well in their rink,” said Maine senior center Kyle Beattie.