By Patrick Donnelly
The No. 9/10 Boston University Terriers (10-3-1) will square off with the UMass Lowell River Hawks (8-8-1) in the Hockey East quarterfinals this Sunday afternoon.
As the second seed in the conference tournament, BU will host sixth-seeded Lowell, who beat Vermont, the tenth seed, during Wednesday’s play-in round.
This marks the third year in a row that the Terriers and River Hawks will face each other in the quarterfinals. In the 2018-19 season, BU beat Lowell 2-1 in a best-of-three series to advance to the conference semifinals before falling to Northeastern. Last season, the two sides were set to meet again in before Hockey East tournament was called off due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
BU and UML are already familiar with each other this season, skating to a 3-3 tie (BU won the shootout) at the Tsongas Center last Saturday.
Terrier head coach Albie O’Connell knows his team will be facing a tough test once again.
“They’re really good hockey team,” he said.”They’re really balanced. Just their schemes and how they play, how heavy and strong they are on top of having skilled players, they’re very hard to play against. We expect a very tough matchup.”
For UMass Lowell, sophomore forward Andre Lee has led the way this season with six goals and seven assists for 13 points in 17 games. Also with 13 points, but in 16 contests, is junior forward Reid Stefanson with 4-9-13 totals.
Senior captain and forward Charlie Levesque, sophomore forward Matt Brown and junior defenseman Chase Blackmun are all tied with Lee for the team lead in goals with six. Brown scored twice against Vermont in Wednesday’s 5-3 win.
In goal, junior Owen Savory has taken most of the work for the River Hawks recently, starting in four straight games. On the season, Savory has an .846 save percentage, a 3.85 goals-against average and a 4-3-1 record in eight appearances. He made 20 saves against the Catamounts on Wednesday, after stopping 25 shots against BU last Saturday.
Freshman netminder Henry Welsch has made nine appearances on the season, posting a 4-4-0 record, an .895 save percentage and a 2.77 GAA.
For BU, sophomore forward Jay O’Brien (8g, 8a in 16 games) and senior assistant captain and defenseman David Farrance (5g, 11a in nine games) each lead the team in scoring with 16 points each. O’Brien’s eight goals lead the team.
On Friday, Farrance was named a Hockey East First-Team All Star for the second year in a row.
Behind O’Brien and Farrance, freshman forward Luke Tuch, the only unanimous selection to the Hockey East All-Rookie team, is second on the team in goals with six, and third in points with 10. Senior captain and forward Logan Cockerill has 5-4-9 numbers in 10 games.
Between the pipes, freshman goaltender Drew Commesso, who was also named to the Hockey East All-Rookie team, has reclaimed the crease. On the season, Commesso has a 6-1-1 record, a .923 save percentage and a 2.75 GAA. He stopped 35 of 38 shots last Saturday against Lowell.
In his three appearances since returning from a prolonged absence, Commesso has made a combined 87 saves on 93 shots, posting a .93 7 save percentage and 2.01 GAA in that span.
BU has given up the first goal in five straight contests. O’Connell says the team must improve their overall play for the whole game, not just the start, especially compared to last week.
“I think we’re just focused on trying to find our game, trying to find our game early, and then going from there,” he said. “We’ve been more more more focused on just how we’re going to play.”
Puck drop between the Terriers and River Hawks is set for 1 p.m. at Walter Brown Arena on Sunday afternoon. The winner earns the right to advance to the Hockey East semifinal next Wednesday. Should BU win Sunday, that game will also be on home ice.
More notes from around the rink…
“A man’s game”
Sunday will mark the first time BU and UMass Lowell will meet at Walter Brown Arena since Nov. 20, 2004. The smaller ice at Wally B brings less room to move around compared to larger ice surfaces like Agganis Arena and Tsongas.
O’Connell knows playing at WBA brings both an entertaining, yet hard-nosed style of play.
“Things happen quick,” he said. “It’s loud for not having any fans, just because of the ceiling so low. It’s a fun place to play, it’s a good place to for check and it’s a good place to play offense.
“There’s not gonna be a lot of space. It’s going to be a man’s game, so we’re gonna be ready for that.”
Single elimination brings higher stakes
As opposed to previous seasons’ best-of-three format for the first round of the playoffs, this season features a single-elimination format. BU is 6-0-0 in rematches this season, but they won’t get the opportunity to recover the next day if they slip up in this contest.
For a team with aspirations for an at-large bid to the national tournament if they do not automatically get in by winning Hockey East, winning against Lowell is crucial for BU.
O’Connell says the prospect of so much riding on a single game, similar to college basketball, is exciting.
“A lot can factor into one game,” he said. “We’re just gonna have to make sure we’re disciplined enough to make sure our bench is positive, no matter what’s going on, because it’s a 60 minute game.”
A selfless identity
This season, the Terriers not been hesitant to sacrifice their bodies, leading the conference in blocked shots per game (14.67). BU has also played a physical brand of hockey and hounded puck carriers on the forecheck, especially with sizable players who play with reckless abandon like freshman forward Luke Tuch, freshman defenseman Cade Webber, sophomore forward Matt Quercia and more.
O’Connell sees those characteristics as key differences between the makeup of this year’s team compared to 2019-20.
“I think, even from the start of game one, even though we didn’t practice a lot, we were pretty competitive,” he said. “I think we did a good job blocking shots, and I think we we’ve got a lot more physical team that we’ve had in the past.”
“We’re balanced if we play as a team. I think that’s the biggest thing, like we’ve played a little bit more selfless this year with willing to do the little things for the team rather than just individual glory.”
An unusual layoff
Both BU and Lowell are coming off a win, but UML may have the upper hand by having played more recently as the Terriers will not have played for over a week.
O’Connell knows the different week may pose a challenge, especially if the River Hawks are able to carry their momentum from Wednesday.
“We’re just trying to figure out what’s the best, so we’d have the right rest with the right legs and get on the ice enough before the game on on Sunday,” he said. “Especially [with the game being] in the afternoon hopefully guys go to bed early on Saturday night.”
Featured Image: Sophomore forward Robert Mastrosimone (16) and freshman forward Luke Tuch (11) get set for a faceoff during a game against Merrimack College at Walter Brown Arena on Feb. 26, 2021. Photo by Patrick Donnelly.