BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Fans of the Massachsetts-Lowell River Hawks carry around a red circular cardboard cutout with the word “EASY” to resemble the Staples Easy Button.
And while the No. 3 seed River Hawks advanced to the final of the NCAA East Regional on Friday, nothing about the win was easy.
Lowell blew a three-goal third period lead, took a major penalty in the closing minutes of regulation and had to watch breathlessly as Miami’s Cameron Schilling rang a one-time off the post just 66 seconds into overtime.
Even when UML captain Riley Wetmore scored the apparent game-winning goal at 2:13 of overtime, it took not one, but two video reviews of the play to finally validate the victory.
Still, with a 4-3 win on Friday, Lowell advances to face top-seeded Union, a 3-1 winner over Michigan State in the opening semifinal, in Saturday’s regional final.
Whichever team wins on Saturday will make the school’s first-ever appearance in the Frozen Four.
When Lowell coach Norm Bazin was asked if he could have imagined a worse scenario – surrendering the lead and having to kill of a major penalty, all while his team looked legless – he answered with a half-joke, half-truth.
“I could have imagined it being worse,” said Bazin. “We could have given up five goals [in the third].”
Instead, getting to the end of regulation proved the crucial point of the game. The River Hawks came out in overtime and killed the final 1:25 of the major penalty to Jake Suter and in doing so, gained life.
Given just one rush down the ice after, the River Hawks made the best of it. Wetmore, who played with an injured hand on Friday, yet scored two goals, drove the net as Derek Arnold fired a puck from the left corner towards the goal. Somehow, Wetmore got some stick on the puck and it trickled past Miami netminder Connor Knapp (26 saves) to send the Lowell portion of the 5,090 at Webster Bank Arena into a frenzy.
“It was a great shot by Derek Arnold,” said Wetmore. “I’m still not sure how the puck went in. I saw David Vallorani celebrating in front of me. Then I knew it was in.”
After the goal, the officials huddled inside the video review booth checking if Wetmore was in the crease prior to the goal. Once it was decided that the goal was good, the official pointed to center ice to set off another celebration.
That, though, was stopped when the officials were called back to the booth. This time was to review whether Schilling’s shot had hit the crossbar and not entered the net.
Finally, 10 minutes after the winning goal was scored, the tally was official.
“Quite frankly, I’m glad they review the goals because you know they get it right,” said Bazin.
Lowell dominated the first two periods as it took a 2-0 lead through one on a Josh Holmstrom power-play goal just 1:34 in and a Colin Wright shorthanded goal at 14:58 where he beat Knapp five-hole on a breakaway.
Sandwiched into that was a disallowed Lowell goal that was ruled a goal on the ice, but then negated upon video review. It was ruled that Joseph Pendenza, who drove the net with the puck, kept Knapp from playing the puck as Matt Ferreira poked home the rebound.
At the time, it was impossible to know how much that call would mean to the game.
It especially looked like a moot point in the second when Lowell extended its lead as Wetmore buried a perfect shot top shelf on a two-on-one at 2:21.
The River Hawks held Miami to just 15 shots through two and looked completely in control.
But once the RedHawks finally got on the board, when Trent Vogelhuber fired a shot through a screen at 3:06 of the third, the dam suddenly broke.
Just 14 seconds later, Austin Czarnik blocked a shot in the defensive zone and was off to the races, beating Lowell goaltender Doug Carr (30 saves) over the glove.
With Lowell running around, Miami completed the comeback at 9:56. As a penalty expired to Steven Spinell, he intercepted a clearing pass out of the box and started a three-on-one. Pushing the puck to Alden Hirschfeld, the senior winger fired a high shot that knotted the game at three.
With 3:35 left in regulation and Lowell looking completely gassed, Suter took an ill-advised penalty, plastering a Miami player from behind into the board. Suter was given a five-minute major and game misconduct. Prior to that, Suter had been whistled for just five minor penalties all season.
In the final minutes of regulation, though, it became the Doug Carr Show. He stopped six grade ‘A’ attempts while Miami had the man advantage including a highlight reel toe save in the game’s final minute on Hobey Baker finalist Reilly Smith.
“At that point, they were piling it on a bit,” said Carr. “It was just one of those desperation saves where you try to get as far over to the puck as you can.”
The win advances Lowell (24-12-1) to the regional final for the third time (1994, 1996). The River Hawks are winless in those prior appearances.
Miami ends its season with a 24-15-2 mark and a senior class that reached four consecutive NCAA tournaments and two Frozen Fours.