BOSTON — The Cardiac Kids live for another day.
Fifth-seeded Mass.-Lowell — which has to win the Hockey East tournament to advance to the NCAA tournament — rallied from a 2-0 deficit by scoring the tying goal with 19.9 seconds remaining in regulation before Chris Auger scored the game-winning goal at the three-minute mark of overtime to lift the River Hawks to the Hockey East championship game with a 3-2 victory over second-seeded Northeastern.
It’s Lowell’s second appearance ever in the title game, the first coming 15 years ago for a program that is looking for its first league championship.
Lowell’s players described playing Friday night with “supreme confidence,” which isn’t surprising given the fact that exactly one week ago the River Hawks had a similar rally, scoring twice in the final seven minutes, including an extra-attacker goal in the final minute, before winning in overtime against Vermont. A night later, Lowell again rallied to victory to sweep the quarterfinal series.
“Confidence is a level of certainty,” said Lowell head coach Blaise MacDonald. “You get confidence through preparation and experience. When a team is confident, it’s amazing and when you’re not, it’s a crutch. You want to be able to eliminate excuses and confidence is part of the deal.”
The ability for Lowell to execute on that confidence on Friday, though, was only presented via a major gaffe by Northeastern, which was whistled for too many men on the ice with 1:05 remaining in regulation.
That led to MacDonald calling his timeout, pulling his goalie and ultimately setting up the play he wanted: a one-timer from all-league defenseman Maury Edwards that hit a body in front of Northeastern goaltender Brad Thiessen (41 saves) and bounced to Scott Campbell, who buried a three-foot putt into the empty net.
“Anyone who knows hockey knows you anticipate a change,” said Northeastern head coach Greg Cronin, describing the costly penalty. “That’s what happened on the [too many men penalty. David] Strathman jumped on the ice and the puck comes right back at [the changing player]. It was just a bad break. I feel terrible for [Strathman].”
After forcing overtime, it was Auger’s turn to play hero. Forcing a turnover on a forecheck, Lowell’s Ben Holmstrom then fired what looked like a random shot toward Thiessen. Auger, though, anticipated the play and drove to the net, beating the defenseman and getting just enough of the puck to deflect it past.
“We talked a lot about going to the net,” said Auger. “I saw Benny get the puck and the first reaction was to get to the net. I was able to get a stick on it. It was a good break.”
The opening period was a coach’s nightmare and a fan’s dream, with little defense and plenty of back-and-forth offense. Lowell outshot the Huskies, 16-11, but thanks to incredible goaltending at each end, the game remained scoreless.
Each team had glaring chances. Northeastern’s best bid came right off the opening faceoff when one of last weekend’s heroes of the Huskies quarterfinal series, Kyle Kraemer, had not one but two incredible bids from the shot. Lowell goaltender Carter Hutton (25 saves), though, got a pad on one bid and a glove on the second.
The River Hawks best chance came on the power play when Kory Falite snuck in back of the Northeastern defense and took a home-run pass, walked in alone on Thiessen and fired a high shot that Thiessen got his glove on to deflect wide.
In the second, incredible goaltending continued, particularly by Thiessen in the early minutes when he robbed Lowell’s Paul Worthington on the power play with a right pad save.
But it was a power play of their own for the Huskies that finally broke the deadlock. As a penalty expired to Lowell’s Scott Campbell, the River Hawks turned the puck over in the neutral zone leading to a partial breakaway for Kraemer. Seizing the opportunity, he fired a high shot over Hutton’s glove at 8:44 to give Northeastern a 1-0 lead.
That gave the Huskies all the momentum and just 25 seconds later, they struck again. A scramble in front led to Rob Rassey picking up the loose puck and firing it over a fallen Hutton just under the crossbar for a 2-0 edge.
The River Hawks finally solved Thiessen late in the frame while skating 4-on-4. Defenseman Ryan Blair had the puck at the left point and fed a pass across the zone to Campbell . Blair immediately headed to the net and took a return pass that the sophomore deflected into the open net at 18:44. It was Blair’s first goal of the season and only the second of his career.
“I really liked the way we responded when Northeastern went up 2-0,” said MacDonald. “In the past we lost our structure in our game when that happened. Blair’s goal was like getting Godzilla off your back.”
The third period became a defensive gridlock as the Huskies were satisfied with playing a tight-checking coverage that limited Lowell to perimeter shots and it appeared that would be sufficient to walk away with the victory. That was until Northeastern’s poor change that led to the too many men on the ice penalty and ultimately Campbell’s tying goal.
The loss for the Huskies, though a difficult pill to swallow, doesn’t spell the end of the season as they will advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994. That, though, doesn’t take away the pain of Friday’s loss.
“[The loss] is still a big sting,” said Cronin. “I haven’t started thinking about [the NCAAs]. It’ll take a day or two to get this out of our system.”
Lowell, on the other hand, lives to fight for another day. And given the “supreme confidence” that Lowell has, a victory in Saturday’s title game and an NCAA berth are hardly unfathomable.