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Semifinal preview: You are cordially invited

March 22, 2013

The Lowell River Hawks (24-10-2, 16-9-2 HE) vs. Providence College Friars (17-13-7, 13-8-6 HE)

5 p.m. Friday at TD Garden, Boston, Mass.

Lowell finished first in Hockey East with 34 points from 27 games, and Providence finished fourth in Hockey East with 32 points from 27 games.

Last three games
Lowell — 2-1 (ot) vs. Maine, 4-2 vs. Maine, 4-1 at Providence.
Providence — 3-2 vs. UNH, 1-4 vs. UNH, 3-2 vs. UNH.

Prior meetings
Lowell trails Providence 43-50-11, all-time.

Season series
Lowell famously took the season series 2-1, and Providence was lucky to avoid the sweep.

In the first game, Lowell only won 2-1 at home, despite outshooting the Friars 50-32. Ryan McGrath opened the scoring, Chad Ruhwedel picked up the game-winner, and Connor Hellebuyck stopped 31.

The next meeting didn’t go as well for the River Hawks, who lost 3-0 on their Senior Night thanks to their inability to get a single bounce all night and general reticence to try to make things happen on their own. Only 23 saves in this one for Hellebuyck.

But they avenged that loss with a 4-1 win at Providence the next night to lock up both the season series and regular-season title thanks to big-time games from Scott Wilson and Josh Holmstrom, each of whom had a goal and an assist, among others. Hellebuyck made 32 saves in picking up this ultra-gigantic win.

Top scorers
Lowell:
Joe Pendenza — 36 GP, 13-22-35 (27 GP, 9-20-29 HE)
Scott Wilson — 36, 14-18-32 (27, 10-15-25)
Derek Arnold — 36, 11-16-27 (27, 10-10-20)
Riley Wetmore — 36, 15-10-25 (27, 13-8-21)
Josh Holmstrom — 36, 12-12-24 (27, 10-7-17)

Providence:
Ross Mauermann — 37 GP, 12-12-24 (27 GP, 9-7-16 HE)
Derek Army — 37, 13-10-23 (27, 12-7-19)
Tim Schaller — 37, 8-15-23 (27, 6-14-20)
Nick Saracino — 27, 11-7-18 (20, 7-6-13)
Mark Jankowski — 33, 7-11-18 (25, 4-8-12)

Goaltending
Lowell:
Doug Carr (20-7-1) — 19 GP, 1,052:29, 2.79 GAA/.897 sv% (15 GP, 863:12, 3.06/.889 HE)
Connor Hellebuyck (16-2-0) — 19, 1,090:12, 1.49/.944 (13, 738:08, 1.38/.948)

Providence:
Jon Gillies (17-11-6) — 34 GP, 2,046:59, 2.08 GAA/.931 sv% (26 GP, 1,579:40, 2.17/.929 HE)

Team stats
Lowell:
Overall (36 games) — 110 goals for (3.06/gm), 78 goals against (2.17/gm). Power play 31/179 (17.3%, 5 SHGA), penalty kill 125/147 (85%, 6 SHGF)
Hockey East (27 games) — 81 goals for (3.00/gm), 63 goals against (2.33/gm). Power play 24/144 (16.7%, 4 SHGA), penalty kill 97/114 (85.1%, 5 SHGF)

Providence:
Overall (37 games) — 104 goals for (2.81/gm), 88 goals against (2.38/gm). Power play 23/152 (15.1%, 5 SHGA), penalty kill 134/165 (81.2%, 5 SHGF)
Hockey East (27 games) — 75 goals for (2.78/gm), 63 goals against (2.33/gm). Power play 15/115 (13.0%, 4 SHGA), penalty kill 102/124 (82.3%, 5 SHGF)

Lowell’s leaders vs. Providence
Joe Pendenza — 12 GP, 7-6-13
Riley Wetmore — 15, 7-5-12
Zack Kamrass — 9, 1-8-9
Derek Arnold — 12, 1-7-8
Chad Ruhwedel — 12, 3-5-8
Scott Wilson — 9, 2-5-7

Doug Carr (3-5-0) — 8 GP, 442:20, 3.25 GAA/.896 sv%
Connor Hellebuyck — 3, 177:37, 1.69/.945

Lowell’s playoff leaders
Riley Wetmore — 10, 2-5-7
Scott Wilson — 7, 3-3-6
Zack Kamrass — 5, 1-3-4
Josh Holmstrom — 7, 3-0-3
Joe Pendenza — 7, 1-2-3

Connor Hellebuyck (2-0-0) — 2 GP, 121:50, 1.48/.933
Doug Carr (2-3-0) — 5, 303:49, 2.57/.929

Outlook
We will state this as simply as we possibly can: Lowell is a much better team than Providence.

But the problem with Providence, as UNH found out to its dismay last weekend, is that even teams as mediocre as the Friars can have one game (or more) taken over by one elite talent, and they certainly have that in Jon Gillies.

People are going to point to the obviously storyline that these Friars, without Gillies, knocked off Lowell in the quarterfinals last year, and while that’s certainly true that those games happened, we will not stop pointing out that the entire team had the flu and Riley Wetmore played Game 3 with a broken hand until people stop saying this is some sort of sign that Providence somehow has Lowell’s number. Nate Leaman is still sub-.500 against Lowell (and everyone else put together!) since taking the job at Providence, and most recently got it handed to him by coaching genius Norm Bazin just two weeks ago on home ice. That 4-1 result was telling because it was Lowell hockey front to back and Providence just had no answer for it. But since we suppose you can say the same about the previous night being Providence hockey front to back, and the one before that being Lowell hockey front to back, and so on and so forth, it’s instructive to note that Providence hasn’t beaten Lowell twice in a row over the last two seasons, except for when the River Hawks swept the last two games of the regular season last year.

Let’s instead choose to break it down as simply as humanly possible, just so the slower readers out there can see just what each team offers. In fact, let’s do it in the form of a quiz:

1) Which would you rather have: Lowell’s forward group, or Providence’s forward group?

The correct answer is Lowell’s. At this point it’s barely worth bringing up the old maxim that Lowell has four second lines, but looking at this list of pathetic Friar attackers, we’re not sure they even have one. Josh Holmstrom, Lowell’s fifth-leading scorer, has as many goals and assists as Providence’s top point-getter, noted ‘Hawk killer Ross Mauermann, with one fewer game played. Obviously they have some talented players down in Providence, with Derek Army and Tim Schaller also nothing to sneeze at, but Lowell has five players with double-digit goal totals compared to just three for Providence, and Nick Saracino doesn’t count because he’s not playing UNH. If you were wise, you’d take Joe Pendenza, Scott Wilson, and Riley Wetmore in a fantasy draft before you even thought about Mauermann, and both Josh Holmstrom and Derek Arnold would give you pause as well.

2) Which would you rather have: Lowell’s defensive corps, or Providence’s defensive corps?

The simple fact is that Lowell, despite bleeding goals to start the season and having occasional fits of defensive ineptitude even during the run of success post-December 2 (Northeastern weekend, at Maine, Senior Night), Lowell has the best defense in the conference. That’s first and foremost. Obviously, the forwards contribute to that, and do so rather a lot, which is another reason we’d take Lowell’s forward group over Providence’s any day of the week, but then you once again have to look at the individual comparisons. Chad Ruhwedel or Myles Harvey? No contest, it’s Ruhwedel. Jake Suter or Alex Velischek? It’s Suter. Christian Folin or Steve Shamanski? It’s Folin. Joe Houk or Tom Parisi? It’s Houk. We could go on like this. The personnel Lowell ices on its blue line every night is superior to that of Providence, and the stats speak for themselves. Lowell allows the fewest shots of any team in Hockey East, and that’s both because its forwards have the puck far more often than the other team, and the defense does a good job of keeping everyone harmlessly to the outside, and of forcing turnovers.

3) Which would you rather have: Lowell’s goaltending, or Providence’s goaltending?

This is the only area in which there’s a debate. Jon Gillies was obviously the best player in the league this season by virtue of the fact that he singlehandedly made Providence any good at all, and that he played every minute for them when he wasn’t at World Juniors. But with that having been said, Connor Hellebuyck has been every bit his equal, if not better, and the only thing really separating them is the smaller sample size for Lowell’s netminder. These two players will end up being the difference in this game, plain and simple. It’s a toss-up, quite frankly.

Unless you consider the results both got this season, apart from the actual wins and losses (Hellebuyck won two of three!). Gillies was the only reason the opening matchup wasn’t a 6-1 blowout. He made 48 saves, and many were of the finest vintage, while Hellebuyck had almost nothing at all to do at the other end despite facing 32 shots. Very few of them were bothersome. But nonetheless, even a master thief like Gillies couldn’t turn out a heist impressive enough to steal this one for his otherwise hapless team.

Then there was Gillies’ 31-save shutout, which was just a bizarre game that Lowell dominated and still lost 3-0. As with Hellebuyck’s night in the first meeting of the year, Gillies could have set up a hammock in the crease, caught a few Z’s, and still only given up maybe two or three. Such was the trouble Lowell provided him in that one. And at the other end of the ice, Hellebuyck gave up goals that were the result of: a deflection off a skate out front, a rebound because Zack Kamrass was just looking at a rushing Providence forward instead of defending him, and a power play goal out of a netfront scrum. Not the best night, but hard to fault him for one of those goals.

The next night was more of the same, but in the opposite direction. Hellebuyck didn’t have much to do and only got scored on thanks to a shortside rebound goal, while Gillies gave up a power play goal, tip-in goal, and goal out of a scrum.

The question of which you’d rather have between Hellebuyck and Gillies is a tough one to answer but in one game, with a trip to the Hockey East final on the line, we’ll take the guy who doesn’t lose when his team actually shows up. We haven’t seen Gillies do that against Lowell yet this year.

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