LOWELL, Mass. — “The hockey gods have paid us back.”
The glorious words of Massachusetts-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald were a fitting summary of Saturday’s 4-1 victory over Northeastern, which earned the River Hawks the final spot in the Hockey East playoffs on the last night of the regular season.
In a season of almosts for Lowell that has seen the club outshoot its opponent in all but three games and regularly outplay foes only to come away empty, UMass-Lowell got what it deserved, dominating from the opening bell to the final buzzer to end the Huskies’ season for the second straight year.
Northeastern and Lowell finished tied for the eighth and final playoff spot. Lowell won the tiebreaker by capturing the season series, two games to one. Lowell eliminated NU a year ago on the same Tsongas Arena ice in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs.
Despite things finally righting themselves between MacDonald’s squad and, as he called them, the hockey gods, it appeared that Saturday night’s contest would follow a similar script to many nights past. In the final minute of the second period, Lowell trailed, 1-0, despite outshooting NU, 30-11 at that point.
But a Ben Walter power-play goal with 10.3 seconds remaining in the second gave Lowell the spark it needed. Walter took a puck from the left wing half boards, cut to the net and fired a shot that bounced off the shoulder of NU goaltender Keni Gibson, over his head and into the net to even the game through two and give Lowell the momentum.
“[The crowd] was great the whole game,” said Lowell captain Ed McGrane of the rowdy 3,934 fans in attendance Saturday night. “When we got that goal [at the end of the second] they gave us a big lift because it helped the bench. It was one of the loudest crowds I’ve ever been in.”
McGrane showed his appreciation early in the third when he picked off an NU pass and walked in alone on Gibson, burying a backhander at 1:23 to give Lowell its first lead, one it never relinquished.
The quick turn of events, though, doesn’t nearly tell the story of the game. Lowell was given chance after chance by the Huskies to score in the first 40 minutes. Gibson, who finished the night with 41 saves and put in a yeoman’s effort in only his second start in the last 11 games, stonewalled Lowell for 39 minutes.
The move to start Gibson might have surprised many, particularly after senior Mike Gilhooly backstopped NU to a 4-1 win on Friday. But according to NU coach Bruce Crowder, the decision was made Thursday to allow the goalies to split this weekend’s games.
Starting Gibson, the number-one netminder for the Huskies when the season started, was a move that MacDonald applauded.
“It was a solid and courageous coaching move to put in Keni Gibson,” said MacDonald. “It looked like he was going to be a genius because he played great.”
MacDonald noted that with Gibson in net, his club’s goal was to generate a lot of shots and score early. The first part of that mission was accomplished. Lowell outshot NU, 16-7, in the first period, but came away scoreless. The best chance to score came in the first minute when McGrane drew Gibson out of the net but fired a shot off the left post.
After Lowell continued to dominate, as has happened often through the frustrating season, NU pranced down the ice on a three-on-two nearing the 15-minute mark and Jason Guerriero buried the rebound of a Mike Ryan shot past Lowell goaltender Dominic Smart (20 saves) to give NU the improbable 1-0 lead.
As the ice continued to tilt towards in the second, it appeared that Lowell had tied the game at the 16:11 mark. Andrew Martin buried the rebound of a Baptiste Amar shot but seconds later, referee Tim Benedetto was seen conferring with his linesmen and then an irate MacDonald. Benedetto explained that when the puck went in, the net was off its moorings, though he couldn’t explain how it became dislodged.
When asked about his team’s mentality after the non-goal, MacDonald said it remained positive.
“You can almost feel where your team is [emotion-wise], and we were fine,” said MacDonald. “[The disallowed goal] almost ignited us.”
Almost is probably an understatement; after that, the River Hawks allowed just 11 Northeastern shots and scored four unanswered goals themselves.
After Walter’s equalizer and McGrane’s eventual game-winner, rookie Matt Collar notched his first two career goals: a seeing-eye deflection off a faceoff at 4:33 and an empty-net goal that at first appeared it might be icing, but deflected off the glass and broke like a Tiger Woods putt into the empty net.
Finally, for Lowell, the gods were smiling.
With the jubilation behind them, the job ahead of the River Hawks is daunting. Lowell will have the unenviable task of facing the number-one seed, New Hampshire, in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs in a two-of-three quarterfinal series at the Whittemore Center.
Lowell is 5-3-0 all time in the postseason against UNH, including a two-games-to-one road series win in the quarterfinals two years ago.
Northeastern finishes the season at 10-21-3 (5-17-2 Hockey East), the Huskies’ worst season since 1996-97, Bruce Crowder’s first behind the NU bench. It marks only the second time in the Crowder era and the sixth since Hockey East began in 1985-86 that the Huskies failed to make the postseason.