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Upstarts, old foes to face off in Hockey East semifinals

BU coach Jack Parker is well aware that his career could end at the hands of rival BC.

matthew J. LEE/globe staff

BU coach Jack Parker is well aware that his career could end at the hands of rival BC.

When the Hockey East semifinals kick off Friday at TD Garden, the opening game will pit a pair of young, up-and-coming second-year coaches against one another.

No. 1-seeded UMass-Lowell is led by Norm Bazin, and No. 4 Providence is guided by Nate Leaman.

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For the River Hawks, it marks their first trip to the semifinals since 2009. They come into the weekend on a roll, having won 9 of 10 and gone 20-3-1 since Dec. 1.

The Friars clinched a semifinal berth with a win over UNH last Sunday — their first victory in a Game 3 quarterfinal at Schneider Arena since March 11, 2001. It is the first time the Friars have made it to the league semifinals in consecutive years since 1996.

Both teams have outstanding freshman goaltenders: UML’s Connor Hellebuyck (1.49 goals-against average, .944 save percentage) and PC’s Jon Gillies (2.08, .931).

Defensively, the River Hawks are tops among Hockey East teams, allowing an average of 2.17 goals per game. The Friars are third at 2.38. Offensively, UML is No. 4 with an average of 3.06 goals per game and Providence is right behind in fifth (2.81).

Bazin said the teams know each other well.

“We are very aware of who we’re playing,’’ said Bazin. “[Gillies] has had a really good season. It’s good to see the league is chock-full of talented freshman goalies. I think it’s really hard to score in this league. I think there is a good crop of freshmen in our league as a whole. We’re going to have our hands full.’’

Leaman’s team comes in battle-tested. Since March began, the Friars have faced BC twice, Lowell twice, and UNH three times.

“It’s another challenge for us,’’ said Leaman. “Our last seven games, we have played against teams in the top seven in the country.

“We are pretty familiar with Lowell. We know very much their strengths, and I think playing UNH, we had a very tough team and a tough opponent. I hope it prepares us for [Friday].

“We have been a better road team in the second half than I feel we have been a home team. If anything, I like the fact we are on the road and in a different building with a young team. I think it helps us focus better.’’

In the nightcap, No. 2 Boston College takes on archrival No. 3 Boston University.

BC coach Jerry York, who will be absent from the bench this weekend because of a third procedure to repair a detached retina, and BU coach Jack Parker are 37-37-7 against one another since York arrived at BC.

Parker, who is in his 40th and final season, wished his friend a speedy recovery.

“It’s concerning that Jerry has another operation going on,’’ said Parker. “It stinks that he’s not going to be on the bench Friday. It could be my last game.’’

BC is in the semifinals for the ninth straight year. The Eagles’ senior class is 14-0 in tournament play, and the defending national champions hope to keep that streak going.

Sophomore left wing Johnny Gaudreau is on fire with 10 points in his last four contests. He leads the nation in points per game (1.48) and has 49 points in 33 games, tops in the league. Senior right wing Steven Whitney has 25 goals in 35 games, second in the country.

Associate head coach Mike Cavanaugh said he expects BU to be a formidable opponent, as it always is. Given the additional emotion of Parker’s retirement announcement, it is expected to be even more so. But that won’t change the Eagles’ preparation.

“They always seem to be playing well when they’re playing us, so that’s not really a concern of ours,’’ said Cavanaugh. “I know they’ve won four in a row. They are rolling along here and playing well as a team, but when they play Boston College, they could have lost four in a row and we’re still going to get their best game.’’

Parker received good news Wednesday. Defenseman Garrett Noonan, who was nursing a separated shoulder, has made a remarkable recovery and is expected to be back in the lineup. When asked at practice how he felt, Noonan grinned and said, “All better.’’

For the Terriers, this is the 11th visit to the semifinals in the last 12 seasons. Left wing Matt Nieto has been cruising along, with 9 goals and 4 assists in the last seven games, and he became the third Terrier since 2000 to reach the 100-point milestone before the end of his junior year, joining Pete MacArthur and Nick Bonino.

Nieto skates with freshman center Danny O’Regan and sophomore right wing Evan Rodrigues, a trio that has 73 points in 20 games. That line, said Parker, “is as good a line as there is in college hockey.

“I think a big reason for that has been the reemergence of Matt Nieto as a star in this league. That emergence is his effort and his skating ability, and you notice him out there all the time now.’’

As much as BU and BC are associated with each other because of the rivalry and the success of the programs, they haven’t actually played each other since Dec. 1.

“It’s a little unusual that we haven’t seen them in so long,’’ said Parker.

BC beat BU in two of the three meetings this season, but that is ancient history now.

“In general, I think both teams are playing pretty well,’’ said Parker. “Both teams usually bring out the best in each other.’’

Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at marrapese@globe.com.
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