LOWELL, Mass. — The coronation of Massachusetts-Lowell as the Hockey East regular-season champion was supposed to happen this weekend.
Two wins would clinch the first-ever title for the River Hawks. They could even claim it on this night with a win, a New Hampshire loss, and a Boston College loss or tie.
New Hampshire and Boston College cooperated, but somebody forgot to give Providence the script.
With a 3-0 table-turning win, the Friars now stand within a win back at home on Saturday of winning the Hockey East title themselves.
That rematch became a winner-take-all contest after New Hampshire lost to Maine 4-3 and Boston College tied Vermont 4-4. Those results left UNH and BC a single point behind Providence and Lowell.
“We haven’t looked at the standings at all and we’re not going to,” Providence coach Nate Leaman said. “That’s what I told the guys. We know it’s going to be a much tougher game tomorrow.
“I could tell [Lowell's] coaching staff wasn’t happy with the way they played, so we’re going to have to come back with a better effort tomorrow. That’s all our focus is going to be [on].”
In the matchup between two of Hockey East’s top goaltenders, both freshmen, Friar netminder Jon Gillies came out on top, stopping all 31 shots for his fifth shutout. Connor Hellebuyck suffered his first loss since his debut on Oct. 19. All three goals against came on rebounds.
“The big games are where it matters,” Gillies said. “Every win counts, but it’s crunch time down the stretch that really matters. You really have to elevate your game at that time of year.”
Gillies echoed his coach’s mantra about the Saturday winner-take-all tilt.
“It’s obviously a big game,” Gillies said. “Everyone knows it’s a big game but the game doesn’t change at all. The puck doesn’t get any bigger or smaller. The way to win doesn’t get any different.
“It’s the same mindset. While we know the magnitude of the game, we’re definitely just going to keep the course.”
While the loss for the River Hawks ranks as a bitter disappointment considering they could have taken their first-ever title in front of their home fans, they still hold their destiny in their own hands and can achieve the same goal on the road.
“At this point I just want to be playing our best hockey heading into the playoffs, but that wasn’t it,” Lowell coach Norm Bazin said. “We’ve played some very good hockey as of late, but that wasn’t one of our best efforts this year. We lacked a little battle mentality. We’ll need to get better tomorrow night.”
The contest featured a matchup between two of college hockey’s hottest teams. Lowell came in with a nation’s best seven-game winning streak and a 17-2-1 mark over their last 20. The Friars, two points behind first-place Lowell, were 4-1-4 over the last nine.
The Friars seized a 1-0 lead on a Ross Mauermann goal in the first period off a weak-side rebound of a Paul de Jersey shot from the right faceoff circle. It marked the first time the River Hawks had trailed in a game since their last loss eight games ago, that one to Maine in overtime.
In the second period, an unguarded Kevin Hart converted a mirror-image goal of Mauermann’s, again capitalizing on a juicy rebound.
Lowell couldn’t take advantage of a golden opportunity with a 1:37 five-on-three power play. The River Hawks generated a strong Scott Wilson chance right off the faceoff and then a Riley Wetmore shot off the crossbar, but the Friar penalty kill stiffened and Lowell couldn’t narrow the margin to a single goal.
Tom Parisi applied the final nail in the coffin in the third, one-timing a rebound to the slot of a Stefan Demopoulos stuff attempt.