BURLINGTON, Vt. — In a Hockey East quarterfinal match in which No. 7 Vermont had to win to force a deciding game three, fifth-seeded UMass.-Lowell completed the upset sweep Saturday night by securing a 4-2 victory over the fourth-seeded Catamounts before a sell-out crowd of 4,003 at Gutterson Fieldhouse.
Scott Campbell led the River Hawks’ offense with two goals and an assist while Nevin Hamilton pitched in with 22 saves. Vermont Hobey Baker candidate Viktor Stalberg added a goal and an assist in the losing effort. The clinching victory advances Lowell (19-15-2) to the Hockey East Semifinals while Vermont (20-11-5) is eliminated from the tournament.
“Obviously a very big victory for our team,” said Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald. “To come into an arena like the Gut for two nights and play well against a really, really dangerous, good team is quite an accomplishment for our guys. We have a tremendous amount of respect for this Vermont program and this team and we had to play our very best to advance.”
“Quite frankly, the better team this weekend certainly won,” said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon. “They were exceptional all weekend. I said to our guys, I can’t help but feel like they wanted it more, that they out-willed us at times.
“I don’t want to paint a picture like our guys didn’t work hard, but those key moments, those situations where it comes down to an important battle, whether it’s a net front battle or a battle for a loose puck that might create something for us offensively, they won more of them. They won more races and more battles. Hats off to them, they deserve all the credit in the world.”
Facing elimination, Vermont left little to chance by scoring on a power play just 59 seconds into the first period to claim an early 1-0 lead. After securing a breakout feed from defenseman Kyle Medvec, Stalberg raced up along the right sideboards, gained the Lowell blue line and then curled wide with the puck. Forcing Hamilton to move laterally, Stalberg unleashed a wrist shot near the left dot that eluded Hamilton top shelf.
Minutes later, Vermont nearly broke the game wide open with a pair of glittering scoring opportunities. After hitting a post, the Catamounts appeared to cash in on an odd-man break when junior Brian Roloff slipped the puck back to defenseman Josh Burrows streaking in from the right circle. Burrows one-timed the feed and the goal light went on but the referees convened and waved the score no good, claiming the shot never crossed the goal line.
“I think we’re coming out, playing the way we want to play, creating a lot of chances out there,” said Stalberg. “I think that, according to Burrows, that shot is in and obviously that gives us a little different ball game.”
Taking advantage, the River Hawks clawed back with a power-play goal of their own at 8:12 to tie the score 1-1. Igniting the man advantage, forward Paul Worthington emerged from Gretzky’s office behind Vermont freshman goaltender Rob Madore (18 saves) and fed the puck back to linemate Chris Auger between the top of the circles. Exhibiting a composed sense of urgency, Auger settled the feed, then blasted a slap shot that rang off the right post and past Madore’s blocker side into the back of the net.
“It could have been a different outcome after the first period,” said Sneddon. “We could have been up 3-1 versus 1-1, [but] that’s the game.”
The second period morphed into a goaltenders battle, as Madore and Hamilton exchanged sparkling saves to keep the game tied. In a whatever-you-can-do-I-can-do-better sequence of glove saves midway through the period, Hamilton robbed Stalberg and then Madore stoned Michael Budd amidst traffic in front.
The defensive trend was abruptly shattered at 15:03 when River Hawks’ forward Mike Potacco took advantage of a wild scrum in front of Madore and hammered home a third-chance rebound to give Lowell a 2-1 lead.
“We can’t be that nice,” said Sneddon of his team losing the pivotal net-front battle. “That’s bloodying those alleys we call it, we played it like it was a tennis match. The fact that a guy was able to stand there and take three whacks at it untouched says that their urgency and their intensity was a little more than ours.”
“I thought we played very well in the second period,” said MacDonald. “We had a lot of good opportunities. [Madore] made some big saves. I thought we could have created a little bit of breathing room in the second period but he played very, very well.”
Trailing 2-1 to open the third period, a scary moment occurred just 2:22 in when River Hawks’ defenseman Nick Schaus crushed Vermont senior assistant captain Peter Lenes into the sideboards in the neutral zone. Lenes appeared dazed as he struggled to his feet and needed assistance skating back to the bench.
Lenes returned to the ice at 10:15 to a thunderous applause from the Gutterson faithful. Unfortunately, the applause was short-lived, as Medvec was whistled for holding at 9:57.
In a beautiful display of tape-to-tape passing, Lowell scored on the ensuing power play to stretch the lead to 3-1. Corralling a feed from David Vallorini down low, Jonathan Maniff sent a glittering cross-crease feed to Campbell on the weak-side doorstep, and he buried the pass into the open net.
Before the Gutterson faithful had time to start biting their nails, Vermont stormed back just 11 seconds later to cut the deficit to 3-2. Once again, Stalberg made the score possible when his turnaround bid squirted off Hamilton’s pad directly to sophomore Justin Milo, who lifted the puck past the down and out Lowell goaltender.
“Obviously getting a little desperate there at the end,” explained Stalberg. “We get down 3-1 on the [penalty kill] there and we’re just going out there trying to work hard and get pucks to the net. I kind of just threw it in behind my back in there and luckily somehow it bounced right on Milo’s stick.”
With time running out and Vermont on the brink of elimination, Sneddon pulled Madore in favor of an extra attacker with 1:10 left in regulation. Campbell spoiled the comeback bid with 48 seconds left when he scored a long empty-net goal to ice to victory for Lowell.
“This has to sting, this can’t be just something we brush off and say ‘Hey, no big deal,’” said Sneddon. “We let a huge opportunity slide through our fingers to go after a Hockey East championship and that’s something we’ve been trying to do all year.
“I’m more disappointed for the guys because I don’t feel like our true character really came through. As a coach, that’s frustrating because you want to get it out of your team and you try to press different buttons and you do different things and whatever we tried just didn’t seem to work very well.”
Vermont finished 1-6 on the power play while Lowell went 2-4. Mark Roebothan added a pair of assists for the River Hawks.
While Lowell moves on to the next round of the Hockey East playoffs, Vermont slides into hockey purgatory, caught between scoreboard watching and awaiting the NCAA tournament selections to see if they will play again this season.
For Stalberg, the formula for success is not a mystery and if selected to the Big Dance, the talented playmaker knows exactly what they must do to succeed.
“We’ve got to be able to fight through that adversity and keep playing. We can’t just die like we did tonight.”