LOWELL, Mass. — In the end, justice prevailed.
UMass-Lowell territorially dominated most of the rubber game of its best-of-three series with Northeastern, but still entered the second intermission tied, 1-1. Even after a Baptiste Amar goal early in the third, the Huskies remained within striking range until an empty-net goal with 12 seconds remaining sealed the River Hawks’ 3-1 victory.
Had Northeastern emerged with a victory, it might have been rope-a-doping at its finest. Instead, Lowell’s domination along the boards and in the overall area below the dots paid off with a second straight trip to the Hockey East semifinals at the FleetCenter. The River Hawks will face top-seeded New Hampshire.
“Lowell played extremely well,” said NU coach Bruce Crowder. “They put pressure on us pretty much from start to finish. For tonight, the better team won. Our kids battled hard. We played hard, [but] we had a lot of trouble generating some offense and when we did generate it, [Cam] McCormick played extremely well.
“I’m very proud of these guys. They played extremely well this year. They gave us a lot of excitement. We got beat by a bigger, stronger, older team tonight.”
Northeastern senior goaltender Jason Braun, making only his third start in the last 26 games, kept the Huskies’ hopes alive, assisted in part by Lowell’s own problems with finishing off its chances.
“Jay Braun kept us in the game,” said Crowder. “There’s no doubt. He was fantastic tonight. He was incredible at times. Those are the types of games that you hope, if it keeps up, you might steal one.”
The possibility that the Huskies might indeed steal the game and end the River Hawks’ season failed to rattle the veteran club.
“I’m most proud of our team because we didn’t get hung up on the scoreboard or what could have been,” said UML coach Blaise MacDonald. “We stayed very much in the present and the present was pretty good most of the game for us.
“We could have been a little bit frustrated by our lack of ability to score in the second period and open up the game, but the fact is we stayed in the present and focused on how well we were playing. All the credit goes to the players for that because they had a great mindset going into the game.
“If you were in our locker room or around us on the bench, the level of calmness was right there. The level of inward focus on positive mental energy was so high. The scoreboard wasn’t even in the building. We were focusing on other things. There was no panic.”
As a result, Lowell now stares into the headlights of the nation’s number-one team, UNH, next Friday. It’s a challenge the River Hawks appear to relish, especially McCormick who has two career shutouts over the Wildcats in their own building, including a 1-0 win earlier this year.
“I don’t know whether it’s the Whittemore Center or if it’s UNH or whatever,” he said. “I just love playing against that team.
“Everybody is excited to play UNH. They won our conference. They’re the top dogs right now. They’re kind of expected to win everything. It would be a great upset if we could pull this off.”
Lowell dominated the first period territorially, outattempting the Huskies, 24-12, and outshooting them, 14-8. As they would go on to do for most of the game, the River Hawks spent large amounts of time controlling play below the faceoff dots in the offensive zone, seemingly able to cycle at will. Nonetheless, Northeastern led, 1-0, off a Willie Levesque goal on an odd-man rush.
The story of the period, though, was Braun stopping all 14 shots.
Levesque’s goal came at 8:07 in one of the few Husky excursions into the Lowell end. Jason Guerriero broke up the right wing one-on-one, but cleverly delayed enough to allow Levesque to enter the play on the left as a trailer. Guerriero fed the senior, who broke in all alone, deked McCormick and slid a shot along the ice far side.
The goal put the spring back in the Huskies’ stride as they began to enjoy their first sustained up-and-down action. They would soon go on the first power play of the period. Lowell killed the penalty effectively, but special teams dictated the flow of the rest of the period. Included in that stretch was a Northeastern 26-second five-on-three man advantage that the Huskies could not capitalize on.
The second period saw more of the same controlling play by the River Hawks down low and this time they converted to even the score, 1-1. They outattempted the Huskies, 23-13, for a two-period total of 47-25, and outshot them, 13-9, for a cumulative 27-16 advantage.
Lowell’s goal came just 19 seconds into the period on an innocuous-looking throwing of the puck on net by Yorick Treille that glanced off a skate and past Braun.
The River Hawks continued to pressure ferociously, with about half of their eventual 14 shots in the period coming from prime scoring positions. At 6:30, Peter Hay sent Treille in all alone off the cycle, but Braun made an excellent save. Six minutes later, Lowell again generated a chance from the doorstep off outstanding cycling. Meunier walked out from the corner, stickhandled around a defender and got Braun down and out in front, but couldn’t roof the puck over him.
Northeastern almost counterpunched itself to the lead with three minutes left, however. First Eric Ortlip and then Jaron Herriman tested McCormick in the middle of that most difficult of periods for a netminder, one with little action in his end. The senior was sharp with the saves, though, and the two teams went into the second intermission tied, 1-1.
The third period again saw more of the same action, although the shot totals would end almost deadlocked, 7-6. Amar got the game-winner at 5:55 off a faceoff. Ed McGrane won the draw back to the defenseman, who fired a shot through a three-man screen made up of McGrane, Geoff Schomogyi and Kevin Kotyluk. Coincidentally, it marked not only Amar’s third goal of the season, but also his third game-winner.
The Huskies’ next-to-last gasp came at 12:48 when they went on the power play. However, Lowell again came up with a strong penalty kill as they had all game.
“I really liked the fact that we had a high energy level there,” said MacDonald. “We were really excited to get out there to kill that penalty. Your attitude is going to govern how you react. It’s not like we were out there, ‘Oh boy, we’ve got to kill this!’ We were like, ‘Hey, we can get this thing done.’
“Once again, we were really good at hunting down pucks and hunting down men and were very aggressive there. That’s driven by a belief in the system and by a belief in your goaltender.”
Lowell finished the game perfect on the penalty kill, stopping all four Husky power plays while allowing only a total of three shots.
Northeastern pulled Braun for an extra skater with 1:09 remaining and did a good job of keeping the puck in the offensive zone. However, Lowell’s defense held until Mark Concannon’s great effort at the point muscled the puck out of the zone and down the ice. With NU defenseman Tim Judy hauling him down to prevent the empty-netter, Steve Slonina followed and put it in himself.
The loss ends the season for Northeastern (19-17-3) and its six seniors who dressed for the finale: Braun, Jim Fahey, Arik Engbrecht, Willie Levesque, Chris Lynch and Leon Hayward.
“[Those seniors] have done everything we’ve asked them to,” said Crowder. “They’ve been absolutely fantastic. That’s the toughest thing about losing this game. Those guys believed in what we’re doing as a coaching staff… Everything we wanted them to do as good citizens, they were there. They helped the freshmen along incredibly this year.”