PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A game that meant nothing in the Hockey East standings meant a great deal when it came to Providence’s NCAA tournament hopes.
Mark Pandolfo scored a pair of third-period goals, including the game-winner with under two minutes remaining, and Massachusetts-Lowell escaped Schneider Arena with a 4-3 win on Saturday night. The River Hawks had leads of 2-0 and 3-1 before seeing the last one disappear in the final stanza and needing a second tally off the stick of Pandolfo to salvage the victory.
“We’re the youngest team in college hockey and to beat an excellent Providence team the way we did is a proud moment for us,” said UML coach Blaise MacDonald. “All the credit goes to the character of our players.”
With the win, Lowell leapfrogged idle Merrimack to finish sixth in the final Hockey East rundown. Providence, which had already sewn up a fifth-place finish last weekend, could do nothing but scoreboard-watch as the night unfolded.
Northeastern completed a weekend sweep of Massachusetts, but it wasn’t enough to save Providence from a quarterfinal trip to New Hampshire. The Wildcats lost in overtime to Boston University and had to settle for a fourth-place finish — one point behind UMass for third.
The Friars-Wildcats series is slated for Thursday, Friday and, if necessary, Saturday nights. The River Hawks will play at Massachusetts, in a series that also begins on Thursday.
With the seedings and playoff pairings all sorted out, it became clear that Pandolfo’s goal at 18:02 — less than two and a half minutes after Chris Chaput’s power-play goal knotted the score at 3-3 — all but buried the Friars’ chances at an at-large NCAA bid. Providence sits at 15-12-7 overall with a final mark of 7-11-6 in the league.
“We know how important this was for getting in the NCAA tournament,” said Friar captain Cody Loughlean. “The more wins you get, the better to help your winning percentage. A 16th win would have helped a lot, but we didn’t get it — so now we’ll go into New Hampshire and try to win that series.”
Providence coach Paul Pooley didn’t have much to say after the loss to Lowell, but he did voice how damaging the loss could be in the big picture.
“Sure, absolutely,” was his answer as to whether he believed this to be the final blow the team’s at-large NCAA chances. “We had to win out, let’s be honest. That’s what we talked about all week, we talked about how important this game was all week. That’s what’s so very disappointing.”
Bobby Robins and Andrew Martin scored second-period goals to give Lowell a commanding 2-0 lead with under five minutes until intermission. Colin McDonald made a comeback seem plausible with 15.2 seconds left in the period — finally beating River Hawk goalie Chris Davidson with the team’s 33rd shot on goal in the game.
Davidson finished up with 40 saves — the second 40-plus save of his career and second in the last month.
“Without question, Providence blows us out in the second period with those (five) power-play chances were it not for him,” said MacDonald of his goaltender. “A good goalie is the best penalty kill.”
The Friars let down to start the third, though, digging themselves a bigger hole with Pandolfo’s soft goal that went five-hole on Bobby Goepfert (21 saves) in the first minute.
Peter Zingoni answered for Providence 63 seconds later with his team-leading 13th goal of the season to cut it to 3-2, and Chaput finished off a brilliant PC power play from the right circle with his 12th at 15:26.
But Pandolfo finished the Friars off.
“We didn’t execute,” Pooley said. “They had nothing going on, but we gave them something with our (bad) execution.”