Reading, MA. – The Hockey East Championship returns to TD Garden after a two-year COVID hiatus. The quartet vying for the Lamoriello Trophy are all capable of winning the tournament and securing the automatic NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey tourney bid. Three of the last four schools to win the tournament are back representing their institutions; the Massachusetts Minutemen: the two seed and defending Champs, the Northeastern Huskies: the 2019 winner and the number one seed, and the UMass-Lowell River Hawks: the three seed and three-time winner in the 2010s. The newcomer to the TD Garden party is the Connecticut Huskies. UConn won its first HEA playoff game last weekend, 3-1 over Boston University, to earn their first trip to Garden.
Six of the Top 10 scoring leaders in the conference are still playing this weekend. League leader Bobby Trivigno of Massachusetts, the reigning HEA Player of the Year, has a 14-18-32 statline. Second place belongs to UConn’s Ryan Tverberg 11-15-26, while Northeastern’s Aidan McDonough is third on 16-9-25. Minutemen defenseman Scott Morrow is fourth with 11-12-23. UConn’s Jachym Kondelik and Massachusetts Ryan Ufko tied for fifth with 22 points each. Kondelik has 7G-15A and Ufko has 3G-19A. The River Hawks might not be top ten points-wise but have a pair of forwards lurking just below, Andre Lee and Carl Berglund. The two Swedes tied on 19 points. Lee has 13G-6A and Berglund has 4G-15A.
The beauty of this weekend is that any game can just as quickly be an offensive shootout as it can be a pair of goalies trading save for save in a 1-0 thriller.
Three of the top goalies statistically speaking are remaining as well. In HEA action, Devon Levi of Northeastern leads all with a 1.64 GAA and .951 SV%. UMass-Lowell’s Owen Savory is second with a 1.81 GAA and a .931 SV%. Matt Murray is fifth overall for the Minutemen on 2.19 and .920. Like the scoring race, UConn’s Darion Hanson sits just below the top five in sixth with a 2.35 GAA and .919 SV%.
Of the four schools, UConn needs to win the title to advance to NCAA play. Massachusetts should be ok with a loss; Northeastern and UMass-Lowell are on the bubble but wins on Friday certainly help further cement a spot.
Connecticut Huskies 19-15-0 (HEA 14-10-0-2-1-0) vs. Northeastern Huskies 25-11-1 (HEA 15-8-1-1-1-1)
The Northeastern variant of Huskies won the season series two games to one. In October, the Connecticut strain won the first game 5-3 at Matthews Arena, while NU swept the weekend home-and-home in late February, 3-1 and 5-2. Sorry, COVID speak has taken over so much these last few years. Is it better than a Huskies joke?
Aidan McDonough had solid numbers against UConn in the three games. He netted a hat-trick in the last meeting. The junior from Milton, Ma. has five goals and four assists in the three meetings between the teams. Expect more of the same as McDonough plays well at TD Garden, 1G-3A in four games.
“I’m really excited for our group,” said Northeastern Head Coach Jerry Keefe. “It’s hard to get back to the Boston Garden. You have to earn that and I’m proud of them to beat a really good BC team here in the first round of the playoffs.”
“We know them (UConn) very well. They know us very well,” said the reigning Hockey East Coach of the Year when asked about the familiarity of the two teams that have recently played. “You know tendencies; it’s not too tough to find teaching clips because we just played them twice. They’re a good team. We’re going to have to prepare. This time of year, you have to play your best hockey.”
“They’re a physical team,” added Keefe about UConn and their size. “They finish checks. They have some big, big bodies, especially up front that are good on the forecheck that will finish hits.”
“They’re a heavy team, they got to the net really hard,” Keefe said. “We need to make sure that we’re boxing out early and we’re hard to play against in front of our own net.”
The players echoed Keefe’s thoughts in facing UConn’s forwards.
“I think defensively we have to be in the right positions at the right time,” said senior co-captain Julian Kislin. “Just stay in front of the guys, we’re not going to be able to move big guys as easily, but, playing the right D in the right spots and making the right reads will carry us through the game.”
“There are some big boys. They’re heavy down low,” added fellow senior co-captain, Jordan Harris. “It’s nice to be able to practice against, every day; we have some big boys down low that can hold on to the puck and shield the puck. We practice it every day. You learn some different things. They’re going to shoot the puck from everywhere. They had like 100 shots when they played us, over two games, so it’s not easy. They’re a good team.”
“It’s going to be a good game,” added Kislin.
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Jachym Kondelik, a 6′-5″ forward from the Czech Republic, led UConn in scoring during the season. The Nashville Predators pick 12 goals and 21 assists for 33 points on the season. Connecticut will need more from him than what he did against NU during the regular season. NU limited Kondelik to a goal and two assists for a point per game. More importantly for UConn, they need sophomore Ryan Tverbeg to get on the board. A few weeks ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ prospect was held pointless in the two-game series. NU won both.
The most significant factor will be can UConn get to Levi. They did in October, but NU isn’t the same team it was back then. Levi had 100 saves in two games in February and allowed only three goals in the weekend sweep.
Prediction: No knock on UConn; it’s just that Northeastern gets it done. They had unfinished business at TD Garden after losing the Beanpot Final in February.
UMass-Lowell River Hawks 21-9-3 (HEA 15-8-1-1-0-1) vs. Massachusetts Minutemen 20-12-2 (HEA 14-8-2-2-3-1)
The Battle of Massachusetts has become one of Hockey East’s best-kept rivalries and secrets. After Friday, the secret will be out. The two University of Massachusetts schools have played several close games over the last few seasons, none bigger than last year’s 1-0 Championship game at the Mullins Center, giving the Minutemen their first-ever tournament championship.
This year the season series was just as tight. The first game was a 4-4 tie at Tsongas Center on December 3, 2021. The River Hawks won when Carl Berglund scored the only goal in the shootout. The Minutemen won the next night at home 3-2 and closed out the regular season series 4-3 back in Lowell on January 30, 2022.
— PuckingOff™ (Jason Scales) (@PuckingOff) January 30, 2022
“UMass-Lowell are well-coached, have an identity, get kids who compete, and their play is very predictable in their style of play,” said Minutemen head coach Greg Carvel on what makes UMass-Lowell tough to play. “They play the game simple and hard, they get pucks to the net, and they try to out-compete you. I view our teams as pretty similar.”
“We played them in the championship last year. We played them three hard fought games this year,” said Carvel. “I think we’re two teams that know each other quite well. It’s become a big rivalry, which is great for our state, and our university system. It’s going to be hard-fought. We’ll pull out the old big boy hockey game. It’s going to be on a different stage that both teams are unaccoustumed too. We haven’t has the joy of playing in front of a big full stadium in a long time.”
“A lot of these guys, believe it or not, with COVID haven’t had a chance to play too much playoff hockey,” said UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin. “Giving these guys an opportunity to play at the Garden is a big deal for our program. We want to keep that going forward.”
“We’re just excited to be playing playoff hockey. We’re excited to be moving on and seeing the Garden,” added Bazin. “Giving these kids an opportunity to play at the Garden is a big deal. For some, it’s going to be one of the highlights of their career highlights. It’s exciting to play for a Hockey East Championship and we want to keep this going.”
“It means you are one of the best four teams in the conference, and you’re playing for a championship,” said Bazin. “And you’re still in it.”
“It’s exciting. That’s why you play all year long,” said the eleven-year bench boss. “Play for a Hockey East Championship and then get an NCAA bid. We’ll take it one step at time.”
The Minutemen have a lot of experience in big games. Five players remain from the 2018-19 NCAA runner-ups and seventeen from the National Champion squad. On offense, they’ve added fire-power to their line-up in freshmen Ryan Lautenbach and Lucas Mercuri. Never mind that freshmen defensemen Scott Morrow and Ryan Ufko are already two of the best in the game.
Morrow is a beast. A 6′-2″ Carolina Hurricanes second round pick, he has 13 goals and 19 assists. Ufko isn’t as big but he’s equally proficient. The 5′-10″ Nashville Predators prospect has five goals and 24 assists and is quietly getting better each game.
— PuckingOff™ (Jason Scales) (@PuckingOff) January 30, 2022
Look for seniors Bobby Trivigno and Anthony Del Gaizo to have big games on Friday. They are exceptional players that pick up their games in big moments.
Prediction: The Battle of Massachusetts has become a serious rivalry. The Minutemen have the most recent trophies, which won’t change on Friday.