LOWELL, Mass. -- It may be the biggest stage on which UMass-Lowell has ever skated, but at practice it's business as usual.

UMass-Lowell (28-10-2), Yale (20-12-3), Quinnipiac (29-7-5) and St. Cloud State (25-15-1) will gather in Pittsburgh later this week to determine college hockey supremacy for the 2012-13 season.

“You have four excellent hockey teams,” UMass-Lowell head coach Norm Bazin said. “It is who is going to execute their game plan best that will come out a winner.”

UMass-Lowell and Yale face off at 4:30 p.m. ET Thursday in the first Frozen Four national semifinal. Top-ranked Quinnipiac and St. Cloud State meet in the second semifinal at 8 p.m. ET.

There are four teams that will take to the Consol Energy Center ice, but Bazin is only concerned with one: his hockey club.

“It's about us executing, making a crucial play at a tough time in the game,” Bazin said. “It's about scoring last and it's about enjoying the experience.”

For the coaching staff and the team, the approach never changes.

“I think we need to play a team game,” UMass-Lowell senior captain Riley Wetmore said, “stick to what has been working all year and getting pucks out of the defensive zone and sacrificing our body, just believing in the system and in the process.”

The talk about play in the defensive zone is not new; it's been repeated all year long.

“When guys realize that good things happen from the D-zone on out it's a tremendous development in your team,” Bazin said. ”It's exciting for a coach because the 'buy-in factor' comes at different times for different people.  Some guys are still growing, maturing.”

The River Hawks have been outstanding in the defensive zone showing a goals-against average of 2.00 for the season and the postseason has been even better. UMass-Lowell has allowed just five goals in six postseason (Hockey East and NCAA regional) games.

Three of the River Hawks' six postseason games have been decided by one goal, two more by just two goals.

“Being able to close out games like that, really speaks a lot about our team and our team defense,” junior defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “We take great pride in it; it's really key for us.”

UMass-Lowell freshman goalie Connor Hellebuyck has been a key. He has won 20 of 22 starts and carries a nation's-best 1.31 goals-against average and a .953 save percentage, also tops in the country.

Hellebuyck deflects credit preferring to point to his teammates. “I think it's hard work. We outwork our opponent. Hard work beats talent.”

Depth has been a key, as well. Twenty different players have scored goals and five are in double-digits.

“Look at our games, very few times was the same lineup intact,” Bazin said. “A lot of different guys have had a role and have played a strong part in our success. I'm proud of that fact.”

None of the Frozen Four schools has ever won a hockey national championship and only Yale has ever been to the semifinals.

UMass-Lowell has been close in past years; three times the team battled in the regional final but came up short. This year was different. The River Hawks, after winning the Hockey East regular-season and tournament championships, marched through the regional defeating perennial powers Wisconsin 6-1 and New Hampshire 2-0 in the regional final.

UMass-Lowell and Yale have met only 11 times and have not faced one another since the late 1990s. The River Hawks lead the all-time series 8-3-0.

Bazin played on UMass-Lowell teams that went 3-0-0 against Yale, including an 8-2 win during his senior season.

  UM-Lowell Yale
Goals per game 3.02 2.86
Goals allowed per game 2.00 2.69
Power play pct. 16.6 21.1
Penalty killing pct. 85.7 83.5

Statistics may provide a comparative insight into these two teams.

UMass-Lowell averaged 3.02 goals per game; Yale, 2.86. The numbers also give the River Hawks an edge defensively, allowing just 2.00 goals per game, third best in the country, compared to the Bulldogs' 2.69.

Yale's power play was ranked 10th best in the country, converting of 21.1 percent of their man-advantage opportunities. UMass-Lowell was further down the list, 32nd, with a 16.6 percent success rate.

Penalty killing finds the River Hawks showing an 85.7 percent success rate, 10th best in the country. Yale comes at No. 26 with 83.5 percent.

UMass-Lowell has drawn strong fan support through the postseason that cannot be defined with stats.

“It's been a huge factor,” Bazin said.  “When you go to the Boston Garden and you see a sea of blue, you go to Manchester [N.H.], it's basically their home rink, and you see just as many UMass-Lowell fans as UNH [University of New Hampshire] fans it can throw you over the edge. It makes a difference, it gives you a special feeling and that's what these kids need.”

After growing pains, Hellebuyck big for UMass-Lowell