LOWELL, Mass. — Out of the last 24 Northeastern games, he’d started only one. Yet Jason Braun was the goaltender coach Bruce Crowder turned to with the Huskies’ season on the line. The senior delivered, stopping 31 of 33 shots to lead the way to a 4-2 win over UMass-Lowell.
As a result, the two teams will face off again on Saturday in the rubber game of the best-of-three series. Fox Sports New England will televise the contest which starts at 7 p.m.
Ironically, the win-or-go-home game will feature two goaltenders who sat on the bench for the series opener, not to mention most of their teams’ recent action. Braun will start the game in the Husky net over freshman Keni Gibson, who at one point had opened 22 straight.
“Jay has been a battler all year,” said Crowder. “He’s been a good soldier. He’s worked hard in practice. Tonight was fantastic for him and was a testament to how he’s handled the adversity this year.”
At the other end, Cam McCormick, who relieved starter Jimi St. John at about the game’s midway point and looked sharp while not allowing a goal, will man the River Hawk crease. At one point a serious Hobey Baker Award candidate, the senior had given way to St. John late in the season and sat on the bench for five straight games.
“From now until the Frozen Four, it’s a one-game series with every team,” said McCormick. “That’s the way we’ve got to approach [Saturday's game]. Fast and loose. Just come in and play hard. We don’t get a second life from here on in.”
Unlike the Friday night contest in which Lowell dominated from the first dropping of the puck, Northeastern staked itself to a 2-0 first-period lead. Lowell rallied with a goal early in the second period and appeared to be gaining momentum until Eric Ortlip beat St. John with a soft goal that soon resulted in McCormick taking over.
The River Hawks again battled back to make it 3-2, but could not get the equalizer. Leon Hayward sealed the victory with an empty-net goal at the 19:48 mark.
“We got great goaltending by Jay and great play by our seniors, [Chris] Lynch, Hayward, Jimmy [Fahey] and Willie Levesque,” said Crowder. “Our back was to the wall, but these are the guys that I knew would come out and do a job for us.”
The win breaks an unenviable playoff losing streak for Northeastern dating back to Mar. 13, 1998, when it defeated Lowell 3-2 in the second game of a three-game set. The River Hawks went on to win that series. Northeastern last advanced to the Hockey East semifinals in 1994.
Nonetheless, Braun felt little pressure to break the streak and keep his team’s season alive.
“It’s pretty easy to play when if you lose, you’re done,” he said. “With how hard we worked this year, it wasn’t going to end like that tonight. Everybody played hard. It just felt good to be a part of it.”
For Lowell, the loss marked a missed opportunity to close out the series and advance to the FleetCenter for the second straight year and eighth time in 10.
“I have to give Northeastern a lot of credit,” said UML coach Blaise MacDonald. “I think they really came in with a determined effort from the drop of the puck. Conversely, we didn’t show up until the second period. It’s disappointing that in a game of this magnitude, for an older team, we failed to capture the importance of intensity from the very get go.
“Northeastern is a very good team when they get the lead, particularly in the first period. We knew that and one of our goals was to get a fast start and score early, score first. We were clearly unable to do that.
“I thought we played very well the second half of the game, maybe even the last two periods. [But] their goaltender played outstanding and defensively, they played very well and blocked a ton of shots.”
One night earlier, Lowell had come out strong, manhandling Northeastern over the opening 16 minutes. Staring elimination in the face, the Huskies did not allow that to happen a second time. By the time the game had hit that same mark, they had taken a 1-0 lead despite having to kill off the only two penalties of the game.
Mike Ryan gave Northeastern the 1-0 lead at 12:54 on a shot from the slot during a three-on-two rush. Within minutes, the Huskies were going on their first power play, an advantage which became a 19-second, five-on-three at 19:09.
Given the golden opportunity to make it a 2-0 lead, they did exactly that. Fahey passed from the left point down to Ryan on the goal line and Ryan slid it to Lynch on the doorstep. Lynch had what looked like miles of open net to shoot at and he put it in for his 20th of the year.
“Coach said that you have to take it personal and take it upon yourselves individually [to come out fast],” said Fahey. “Guys did that tonight. Instead of waiting for things to happen, they just went out and made them happen themselves.”
Lowell did anything but fold despite the two-goal deficit, out-attempting the Huskies, 19-10, in the second period, resulting in a 12-7 shot advantage. A Lowell tally and offsetting soft goals allowed by both teams made it a 3-2 game going into the third.
The River Hawks benefited first from a soft goal with Ed McGrane scoring his 21st of the season on a sharp-angle shot that handcuffed Braun at 5:44, but was also a more glaring example of defensive sloppiness considering the way Lowell’s top sniper was allowed to circle down low at will.
Six minutes later, however, the Huskies matched that when Ortlip beat St. John five-hole from another sharp angle off a Lynch dump into the corner.
MacDonald immediately directed McCormick to begin stretching and after the next stoppage in play, he took over for St. John.
“Actually, I thought it was one of the easier situations to come into,” said McCormick. “We’re up one game in the series, we’re down two goals with eight minutes left to go in the second. I didn’t feel any pressure on me at all to play well.
“Coach asked if I wanted a warm-up and I said no. Coming in that situation, I’m fully aware of what’s going to happen. You just have to go in there and battle.”
Despite the 3-1 deficit and the deflating nature of the soft goal, the River Hawks rallied.
On their next power play, they narrowed the score to 3-2 when a Chris Gustafson shot from the point caromed to Marc Concannon on the doorstep. His initial attempt on the rebound hit a sprawling Husky defenseman, but Concannon lifted the loose puck into the net.
It was Concannon’s fourth goal in the last four games along with two assists after scoring only three goals in the season’s first 32 games.
The two goaltenders owned the third period, during which Lowell dominated territorially, cycling the puck down low for long stretches of time. Northeastern, however, counterpunched with several glittering opportunities, requiring McCormick to be at his best until getting pulled for an extra skater at 19:32.