BOSTON — UMass-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald knew one thing facing top-ranked New Hampshire in the Hockey East semifinals — his River Hawks could bend but not break.
And though early in the second it looked as if Lowell had a stronghold on control in the game, a quick UNH rally not only broke the Hawks’ backs but ended their hopes at a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Leading 2-1 in the second, the River Hawks had countless opportunities to bury goals past UNH goaltender Matt Carney (26 saves) to put the Wildcats to the brink of elimination. But UNH withstood the storm, then scored twice in less than three minutes to take a lead it would never relinquish, a 4-3 victory and a berth in Saturday’s championship game.
“Good teams get a lot of good breaks,” said MacDonald. “It seems when you see teams like UNH and Maine, they get a tremendous amount of puck luck. UNH is a very opportunistic team.
“[Lowell] on the other hand, we work very hard for our opportunities but then when we get them, we don’t yield on our opportunities as well as UNH can.”
Certainly in Friday’s semifinal, that seemed to be the story. Lowell finished the first period with a 2-1 lead that easily could have been 3-1 early in the second when Peter Hay smacked the post to the right of Carney.
“We only had a few chances in the first period and then were able to take it to [Lowell] in the second period,” said UNH forward Sean Collins. “We got back on our heels but then we got a few lucky breaks that we capitalized on, and that’s how we got back in the game.”
There were two turning points. The first came when UNH erased Lowell’s 2-1 lead scoring twice at 11:53 and 14:03 to take a 3-2 lead. The second came shortly after, when UNH killed off the only two power plays of the game — back-to-back man advantages at 14:37 and 16:30.
After taking a 4-2 lead early in the third, it was up to the UNH defense to stifle the Lowell attack. After allowing 25 shots in the first two periods, UNH surrendered only four shots in the third, and nothing of quality after Lowell pulled within a goal at 9:46.
“After we came back with a good second period, I thought the guys did a good job of keeping themselves together and holding Lowell to four shots,” said UNH head coach Dick Umile, who carries his Wildcats to the Hockey East championship game for the fourth time, the first since 1999. “We really kept them in neutral zone, forcing them to turn the puck over and go back.”
UNH got on the board first as Darren Haydar, one night after being named a finalist for the Hobey Baker award, added to his case why he may be the best player in college hockey.
After taking a feed in the slot from Collins, Haydar fanned on the first shot with UML defender Jeremy Domish draped on his back. Regaining his balance, Haydar fired a low wrist shot on a second attempt that beat Lowell starting goaltender Cam McCormick (12 saves) through a screen for a 1-0 lead.
But Lowell responded. Defenseman Josh Reed picked up a loose puck along the right boards and fired a low wrist shot through a screen. The traffic in front kept Carney from seeing the shot as it moved through his legs to even the game at 13:18.
At 16:37 Lowell took its first lead of the game when Mark Concannon found the luck of the Irish two days before St. Patrick’s Day. Attempting to center the puck to the slot, Concannon’s pass hit the knee of UNH’s Nathan Martz and caromed past Carney.
The goal gave Lowell a burst of energy that would keep New Hampshire without a shot for nearly eight minutes. After Hay’s shot off the post in the early goings of the second, Lowell had further chances to extend the lead, notably a backhander that Hockey East second team all-star Ed McGrane couldn’t lift over Carney.
And as so often happens, when Lowell failed to capitalize, the Wildcats did. Martz made up for his defensive deflection in the first with a perfect home-run pass to Tyler Scott. After McCormick stopped Scott, the rebound sat uncleared and untouched by three players before Kevin Truelson backhanded a shot over a fallen McCormick to even the game.
With momentum on its side, UNH scored 2:10 later. This time Haydar attracted two Lowell defenders and centered to a wide open Steve Saviano, who wristed a shot over McCormick’s glove for a 3-2 lead at 14:03.
That marked the end of the night for McCormick, who gave way to Jim St. John (12 saves).
“There were some opportunities for Cam [McCormick] to stop some pucks coming out front [of the net], and I wanted to get some more offense out of our goaltender,” said MacDonald, when asked about the goaltending change. “Jimi [St. John] plays the puck well and I thought that would help our energy level.”
Though playing well, St. John failed to stop a shot from Mick Mounsey 37 seconds into the third period that gave UNH a 4-2 lead. Replays indicated that the shot deflected in front of St. John at the same time that UNH’s Collins bumped into the goalie.
“In the third period, the tone was set when they scored on the first shift,” said MacDonald. “They got a lot of momentum and we were on our heels a little bit [allowing UNH to] go into a bit of a prevent defense.”
The River Hawks pulled within one with McGrane scored his 22nd of the second, finishing off a rebound of a Dan Fontas shot at 9:46, but that was as close as the Hawks could get.
As the final seconds ticked away and the Hawks could not beat Carney, the game — and UMass-Lowell’s season — ended. Lowell stands 13th in the PairWise rankings and cannot move up to the 11th and final spot.
Joked MacDonald, when asked if his team still had a chance: “I feel very optimistic that I’m going to lobby very hard for a 16-team tournament starting Sunday. Then I like our chances.”
The win for UNH virtually clinches one of the top four spots in the PairWise Rankings and a first round bye in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats, first, though, will try to capture their first Hockey East postseason title on Saturday.