ORONO, Maine — Throughout the past 20 years, there has been one undeniably predictable occurrence in the Hockey East conference tournament: the second seed always makes it to the semifinals. In fact, the most unpredictable of tournaments has never seen otherwise.
On Saturday, that tradition continued.
Despite a feverish attempt to crash the championship weekend, seventh-seeded Mass.-Lowell fell victim once again to a deep Maine squad, 4-3, and was swept, 2-0, in its best-of-three quarterfinal series. For Maine, unbeaten in its past 10 games, it was the second straight quarterfinals sweep of the River Hawks.
“We advanced. Obviously it was a very hard fought series,” said Black Bear head coach Tim Whitehead. “We have a lot of respect for how they played. They left it all out on the ice. If I am them I’ve got to be proud on how they competed and left it out on the ice. Fortunately, so did we and we found a way to be one goal better each night. It was a fine line but we got it done.”
Sparked by the surprising play of freshman defenseman Matt Duffy, who registered his first two collegiate goals on the night, Maine escaped the clutches of an inspired River Hawk team that refused to disappear. Although down, 4-1, with 10 minutes remaining in the second period, Mass.-Lowell managed to claw back and put pressure on the red-hot Black Bears thanks to two power-play goals separated by only 22 seconds.
“As disappointing as it is to lose, we can look in that locker room and everyone one of the guys in there has pride in each other,” said River Hawk captain Bobby Robins. “We poured it all out and give it our best shot.”
Mass.-Lowell is 0-12 all-time in the Hockey East tourney against the Black Bears.
“That’s hockey I guess,” said Robins. “It’s a funny sport like that. It can break your heart or make it explode with joy. It’s a fine line.”
“We kind of had their number since freshman year,” said junior assistant captain Michel Leveille. “We knew how they were playing and we knew we could beat them.”
Over the course of the game Maine was able to shake off an early first period goal from the River Hawks and a shocking three goal rally. Captain Greg Moore felt the Mass.-Lowell comeback, which made it 4-3 at 12:36 in the second period, was a real gut check for the Black Bears.
“Those two goals within a minute of each other really put us on our heels,” said Moore. “The team responded pretty well. We kept working hard and made the little things simple. We tried to be aggressive; we didn’t want to back off.”
The Black Bears built their nearly surmountable three-goal advantage courtesy of a classic postseason performance from Duffy. The defenseman, who found a spot in the lineup only two weeks ago because of Mike Lundin injury, notched the eventual game-winner at 5:54 of the second period on a textbook 2-on-1 play created by Leveille.
“Lev’s just gave me a great pass and I one-timed it into the net,” said Duffy.
Duffy and Leveille were able to break in on netminder Peter Vetri after Moore started the play with a pass from just below the Black Bears blue line.
Duffy had been waiting for a chance to make an impression the past month.
“Since I wasn’t playing I was getting on the ice as much as could during practices and trying to get better,” said Duffy. “I was going to prove as much as I could when I got back in. Getting my first two goals in a big playoff game feels great. If I got a hat trick I think I would’ve passed out.”
The game-winner capped off a career day for Duffy, which saw him begin the scoring for Maine at 11:20 of the first period. On the opening goal, the Maine native ripped a low level point shot through traffic and in between the legs of Vetri.
“It was a great weekend for him,” said Whitehead. “I thought he was great last weekend. He’s really been out of the lineup for a long time but he’s obviously been thinking about how he wants to play when he comes back. I am very proud of him.”
With the game knotted, 1-1, at the end of the first period, Maine built a three goal cushion compliments of a precision shot by Moore and beautiful deflection by big man John Hopson. Duffy followed with the game-winner.
The first came 27 seconds into the second period from Moore who burst into the Mass.-Lowell zone and pilfered the net for the 26th time this season. Leveille and Travis Wight earned assists on the tally.
Hopson followed suit on the power play, redirecting a Simon Danis-Pepin slapshot that began with a Billy Ryan pass.
However, with the game seemingly in hand, the River Hawks refused to see their season end without a fight.
“When you get in a situation where you are down three goals, you can do one of two things,” said Robins. “You can fold up and just let the game take the way it is going to go. Or you can change the momentum of the game. And we did that but we came up short.”
Ignited by two penalties on the Black Bears, Mass.-Lowell beat goalie Ben Bishop first at 12:14 and then at 12:36. The goals came from J.R Bria and Andrew Martin, respectively. Elias Godoy recorded assists on both marks.
“The second period goals came off two questionable calls,” said Bishop. “I just had to put those behind me. One went off the shin pad and the other was just a bad rebound.”
Whitehead felt the rally was helped by the Black Bear’s lack of discipline.
“We kept putting them on the power play, that’s the mistake we made,” said Whitehead. “Instead of moving our feet we were using our sticks. We basically gave them the opportunity to get back in the game.”
Bishop, who had 22 saves and concluded the weekend having surrendered six goals, was glad to finish off the River Hawks. Vetri had 24 stops.
“Once that buzzer went off I was real happy. It was a little bit shaky but we are going down to the garden and that is all that matters,” said Bishop. “I was a little surprised at how hard Lowell came out. I learned a lot from this series. I am really going to take what I learned into the garden.”
Lowell ends its season with 14-20-2 record, while Maine, 26-10-2, will now tussle with rival Boston College in the semifinals for the second straight year.
“We want to go there with the mentality that we are going to get it done,” said Leveille. “They beat us last year and we definitely remember that. We are on a roll we just don’t want to stop; we want to win it all this year.”