LOWELL -- This is Norm Bazin's third season at UMass Lowell, his alma mater. And this is the third straight season Bazin has led the River Hawks into the NCAA Tournament.
The River Hawks are 3-2 in NCAA play in that span. So how does the 2013-14 team stack up?
"I think this could be the best team I've coached in my three years (at UML)," Bazin said. "We ran into a rash of injuries probably halfway through the year that we were able to overcome and that proved to me that these guys can fight through a lot of stuff. They proved that they're a resilient bunch. I'm glad that they won the (Hockey East) championship. They don't always find the easy way. That's why I have so much gray hair but they find a way to get it done in the end."
Repeating as Hockey East playoff champs is a rare feat. But the River Hawks have a bigger goal in mind.
UML (25-10-4) turns its attention to the NCAA Northeast Regional tournament which begins Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Worcester's DCU Center against Minnesota State (20-7-1). Boston College (26-7-4) and Denver University (20-15-6) are the other teams vying for a trip to Philadelphia.
Who is Minnesota State?
UMass Lowell would like nothing more than to emerge from the regional and return to the Frozen Four tournament. Last April, the River Hawks lost to Yale University in a semifinal contest in Pittsburgh.
The Minnesota State Mavericks are led by senior captain Johnny McInnis, who hails from Boston. In 132 career games, the forward has scored 78 points. This season, he has 21 goals and 16 assists for 37 points.
The Mavericks leading scorer is Matt Leitner, a product of Los Alamitos, Calif., who has posted 12 goals and 32 assists for 44 points.
After Leitner, 10 other MSU players have scored 15 or more points.
In goal, the Mavericks have placed their faith in freshman Cole Huggins and he has not disappointed. A native of Colorado, Huggins has been in the crease for 21 wins, 7 losses and 1 tie.
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Big on balance
The River Hawks have a balanced attack and will depend on it in Worcester.
Pendenza, a native of Wilmington, continues to lead the club in points with 29. Fifteen players have scored 10 or more points in the 2013-14 season.
Pendenza's 13 goals lead the club but he is followed closely by Adam Chapie's 12 and Derek Arnold's 11.
"To have a great team at Lowell, we don't have the 50- or 60-point guys but we have a lot of good hockey players. It can come from anywhere," Bazin said. "You need strong goaltending and you need strong defense. When I came here, I wanted Lowell to be the kind of team that would compete for championships and I think we do that. Now we get the chance to compete for the big one."
The River Hawks are fortunate to have several players who have played in five NCAA games.
Captain Josh Holmstrom explains what has kept his squad moving forward throughout the season.
"We just want to play our best at playoff time," Holmstrom said. "We just want to keep going. We just keep playing hard through the ups and the downs. This team is very resilient. We're very happy to be getting the chance to keep going."
"There isn't anywhere else we'd rather be," Pendenza said after winning the Hockey East crown. "This is the fun time of year. This is why you run around the track, you do all that work in the summer time, you do it for playoff hockey. Playoff hockey is the most exciting time of the year."
Doing it with defense
The River Hawks have the stingiest defense in college hockey.
Last weekend, they pulled off the unheard of task of winning the semifinal and the final contests by shutting out Notre Dame and the University of New Hampshire. Both games ended 4-0.
Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck was named tournament Most Valuable Player for the second straight year. He is the first Hockey East goaltender to register two shutouts in the conference's tournament.
But Hellebuyck has had plenty of help. The six-man defensive corps is led by Christian Folin, a sophomore from Gothenburg, Sweden who has established himself as a premier defender in college hockey. His 19 points are tops among the team's defensemen.
In goal, Hellebuyck (17-8-2) leads the country with a 1.73 goals against average and .943 save percentage.
"Connor has been stellar," said Bazin. "There's no question you can't win without a good goalie and he's provided us with great goaltending all year."
View from the top
UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan has been impressed with the job Bazin and his staff have done.
"He's a disciplined, outstanding coach. He reminds me a lot of (Bill) Belichick in so many ways. He epitomizes excellence, and he passes that along to his players. When you hear players like Hellebuyck or Pendenza speak, they bring great credit to the university.
"I'm really proud of our coaches and players. It wasn't luck that brought Norm here. We had a great hiring process and he stood out as the one we wanted. There was no doubt he was going to come here and win. In college hockey, unlike basketball and some other sports, it seems like alumni make the best coaches."
Follow Shawn Hutcheon on Twitter at @ShawnHutcheon