MANCHESTER, N.H. — The Wisconsin Badgers learned a difficult lesson in Friday’s NCAA Northeast Regional opener: speed kills.
The Badgers were dismantled defensively by a quick Massachusetts-Lowell team that scored six transition goals and rode goaltender Connor Hellebuyck’s 31-save performance as the River Hawks advanced with a 6-1 victory. They’ll play in Saturday’s regional final looking for the school’s first Frozen Four berth.
2013 NCAA Northeast Regional
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“I thought our skating game got better as the game went along,” Lowell coach Norm Bazin said. “Until Wisconsin started pressing, I don’t think speed was as big a factor as it should have been. But they’re a great defensive team so I have to give them credit.”
That great defense surrendered six goals for the first time all season, something that according to Badgers coach Mike Eaves was the result of his players trying to do too much.
“We’ve played some really fast teams this year so I don’t think the speed was a factor,” Eaves said. “I really think that our guys tried too hard. They were stepping to areas and moving outside the dots and doing things that we haven’t seen in a long time. It caught up with us and [Lowell] took advantage.”
Advantageous Lowell was. Despite being outshot early, Lowell scored on three of its first 11 shots and grabbed a 3-0 lead.
Even after Wisconsin’s Nic Kerdiles scored at 8:19 of the third to pull the Badgers within two, Lowell struck three more times to earn the school’s most lopsided NCAA tournament victory in five appearances.
“They played their game,” Eaves said of Lowell. “They took advantage of the moments they got odd-man rushes. They put the puck away.”
The game’s biggest turning point came early on. After Joseph Pendenza gave the River Hawks a 1-0 lead at 7:11, Wisconsin was presented with a golden opportunity to even the score.
Short-handed, Wisconsin’s Jefferson Dahl got behind the Lowell defense, forcing Riley Wetmore into a hooking penalty. A penalty shot was awarded but Dahl was unable to get the shot past Hellebuyck.
“I knew [Hellebuyck] was a big kid who likes to go down but I just didn’t get it up high enough,” Dahl said.
“I was trying to cut down the angle and make him do something,” Hellebuyck said of the play. “It was kind of a waiting game and I just outwaited him.”
The River Hawks were outshot 11-4 in the opening frame but controlled the front of the net and came out with a lead.
In the second, the River Hawks took over. Rookie blueliner Christian Folin jumped in on the rush and worked a perfect give-and-go with Scott Wilson, burying his sixth goal of the year under the glove of Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel (20 saves) at 3:12.
Seconds after the goal, Wisconsin came close to getting on the board when Joe Faust’s shot from the point deflected in front and beat Hellebuyck. The puck, though, clanged off the crossbar, which stood up after video review.
Late in the frame, Lowell again used its speed as defenseman Shayne Thompson got behind the Wisconsin defense, walked in alone and roofed a shot past Rumpel.
Wisconsin finally got on the board on the power play in the third. Immediately off the draw after Wilson was whistled for charging, Brendan Woods fired a shot through a screen that beat Hellebuyck, the first goal he allowed in 159:20 dating to last weekend’s Hockey East semifinal.
That, though, was as close as the Badgers got.
Wisconsin, desperate for a goal, began to take chances offensively and at 13:56 Lowell made them pay. A pinching defenseman created a two-on-one rush with Derek Arnold putting home a pretty feed from Ryan McGrath.
After Adam Chapie scored an empty-netter with 48 seconds left, McGrath scored the final goal of the game with 3.3 seconds remaining and Rumpel back in net.
It’s the second straight year and fourth consecutive NCAA appearance in which Lowell advanced to the regional final. That, though is as far as this program has advanced.
If the River Hawks are going to advance to the Frozen Four, they’ll need to put this win behind them, something their captain Wetmore already told them to do.
“We do have a lot of confidence, but our coaches and our captains have really kept us levelheaded throughout the whole run,” Wilson said. “Tonight is a great win for us but Wetmore, our captain, pulled us aside and said, ‘Enjoy it for five minutes.’ Tomorrow we have to do business again.”