LOWELL -- In two short years, coach Norm Bazin and his nationally-ranked UMass Lowell hockey team have already achieved one of his three goals, the Hockey East regular-season championship.
The River Hawks have a golden opportunity to achieve another one this weekend as they set their sights on the Lamoriello Trophy that goes to the league's tournament champ.
"When I said at (my introductory) press conference that I wanted to play for all three major championships, it wasn't something fabricated for the press conference," Bazin reiterated. "We want to play for championships.
"I don't think we're any less deserving than a BC, BU or UNH. We work just as hard, and this year more than any other I don't think any team has an advantage.
"There's no time like the present to get that done."
To get to the championship game for just the third time in their history on Saturday night, the top-seeded River Hawks first have to get past fourth-seeded Providence College in the semifinals on Friday (5 p.m.). Boston College and Boston University tangle in the other semifinal at TD Garden in Boston.
Being the top seed has meant little in the past. Barely half of the regular-season champs (15 of 28) have gone on to win tournament as well, another testatment to the overall strength of Hockey East.
"There were five teams separated by two points (in the final standings)," said Providence coach Nate Leaman. "Over a 27-game season, two points is really nothing. We all might have had a bad call, missed some open nets that might have cost us points.
"There are five teams that could have won our league this year, and congrats to Lowell for doing it."
Fifth-ranked UML (24-10-2) won two of the three games from 16th-ranked Providence (17-13-7) during the regular season, including a 4-1 triumph over the Friars less than two weeks ago that decided which team was going to win the title for the first time in its history.
The River Hawks have won nine of their last 10 games after putting together an 11-game unbeaten streak earlier. But the Friars are not the least bit intimidated.
"Our last seven games, we have played against teams in the top seven in the country," Leaman said. "We are pretty familiar with Lowell. We know very much their strengths."
Bazin said playing Providence is like looking in the mirror.
"It will be a lot like playing ourselves," he said. "They're strong defensively, work hard away from the puck, have good goaltending, all attributes we can use to describe ourselves."
Friday's game will pit the two top goalies in the league, not to mention two of the top freshman goalies in the country, against one another once again. UMass Lowell's Connor Hellebuyck (1.49, .944) and Jon Gillies (2.08, .931) both made Hockey East's All-Rookie Team.
Gillies had 48 saves in a 2-1 loss to UML in January and shut out the River Hawks 3-0 two weeks ago before losing the rubber game.
"It's been a great year for the freshman class in this league, the goaltenders specifically," Bazin said. "You're going to see two good ones on Friday.
"It's going to come down to who can execute and make each other's goalie's life tough," he added. "We can't make their goaltender the first star, or else we'll be in trouble."
Hellebuyck, whose personal 13-game winning streak was ended by Gillies in the shutout, was beaten out by Gillies for the backup goaltender's spot for the gold-medal winning U.S. team at the World Junior Championships in December. But he said he feels no animosity toward Gillies.
"You might think that," he allowed, "and I guess you could call it a rivalry (between us) after the last three games. But it's a team game.
"I think if we come out with the same drive, intensity, and urgency as we did the last time we played them, I think it will be more of a team game than a goaltending game."
Although the River Hawks played in the NCAA Tournament last year, playing at the Garden for the first time as collegians will not have lost its luster. UML's last appearance at the Garden was a 1-0 loss to BU in the Hockey East championship game in 2009. The River Hawks were eliminated by Providence in the quarterfinals on home ice last year before earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"Getting to the Garden is a special treat for these guys," said Bazin, "especially for the senior class who have never been there."