PROVIDENCE — Massachusetts-Lowell earned its first ever Hockey East title, defeating Providence, 4-1. Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna presented the trophy to the River Hawks in their locker room following the win.
The victory also proved historic, since it marked the first time a team other than Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire, or Maine has won the league’s regular season title.
“We’re certainly elated,” Lowell coach Norm Bazin said. “It’s an exciting day for our guys, and I’m going to let them celebrate for a few hours before we start thinking about the first-round [playoff] match-up.”
The River Hawks opened the season with a bleak 4-7-1 record, but put together a torrid 17-2-1 mark to take a one-point lead in Hockey East heading into the final weekend of the regular season. On Friday however, Providence defeated them, 3-0, setting up the winner-take-all match for the title.
Josh Holmstrom and Scott Wilson scored third-period goals after the Friars evened the score, 1-1, in the stanza’s opening minute. At the other end, Connor Hellebuyck stopped 32-of-33 shots, and the Lowell penalty killers posted a perfect 10-for-10 mark.
“The penalty kill was a microcosm of the whole game in terms of the urgency for puck battles,” Bazin said. “We knew we weren’t good enough last night. It was lack of urgency [that caused us to lose last night]; we had it tonight.
“We have a couple awards we give after wins, and I wish we could give it to about 10 guys, because the penalty kill was stellar.”
Amazingly enough, Lowell and Providence were the two Hockey East teams to miss the playoffs two years ago. Lowell hired Bazin, who fashioned a historic one-year turnaround last season, and PC hired Nate Leaman, who followed suit this year.
“It’s exciting because some of the guys suffered through some tough seasons,” Bazin said. “I’m most proud of those guys because they’ve been through so many hard times. It makes it easier to appreciate the good times.”
For the Friars, the loss was a bitter pill to swallow, since they’d beaten Lowell on the road to bring the potential title back home and within their reach. It would have been every bit as historic for them as it proved to be for their foe.
“They out-battled us tonight,” Leaman said. “Last night, we got the better of the battles, but tonight they came back hungry and got the better of the battles.
“It stings. It should sting. You have to learn from these things.
“No Providence team had been in this position before in 29 years. Sometimes the hardest lessons are failures. You’ve got to make sure you pick yourself up and get right back after it, because there’s another trophy to be won in two weeks.”
In the league playoff quarterfinals next week, Lowell will host Maine as the number one seed; Providence falls to the number four seed behind Boston College and Boston University, and will host New Hampshire.
Both match-ups project to be difficult. Maine has played very well over the second half, and historically has had Lowell’s number. In New Hampshire, Providence will be facing the PairWise’s number six team.
Lowell seized the lead in a feisty first period that had combatants jostling for position before the dropping of the first puck. Providence took the first penalty and the River Hawks made them pay at 3:08 when Scott Wilson centered the puck to Riley Wetmore, who buried it for his 15th goal of the year.
The River Hawks spent most of the next period and a half short-handed, as the Friars enjoyed seven of the next eight man advantages, but the Lowell penalty killers rose to the fore and kept Providence off the board.
Just 19 seconds into the third however, Tim Schaller scored down low on a rebound of his own shot and the game was tied, 1-1.
“I warned our guys before we went out for the third period,” Bazin said, “that regardless of who scored next, we’d keep our composure, our poise, and we’d go after it. We’d attack.”
Bazin proved correct. At 6:41, Holmstrom tipped a Zack Kamrass shot from the far left faceoff circle to regain the lead.
Less than four minutes later, a scrum developed in front of the net on a Lowell power play and Wilson whacked it in.
Providence pulled goaltender Jon Gillies while on a power play with 1:41 remaining to play six-on-four, but with 13 seconds remaining, Christian Folin’s empty-netter clinched the game and title for the River Hawks.