MANCHESTER, N.H. — The season of exorcisms continues for Massachusetts-Lowell.
Two weeks ago it was Maine, a team that Lowell had a 1-14 record against in playoff games. Lowell swept the Black Bears in the Hockey East quarterfinal. Last weekend it was Boston University, a team that had knocked off the River Hawks in their only two league final appearances. A victory there gave Lowell its first Hockey East crown.
2013 NCAA Northeast Regional
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This exorcism was the biggest of them all for the River Hawks, as a 2-0 victory over UNH in the Northeast Regional final sends Lowell to its first-ever Frozen Four.
“I just remember we weren’t that happy losing to [UNH] on that weekend,” said defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, remembering back to early December. “We’ve changed a lot as a team. We’ve matured. It’s all been adding up.”
On Saturday, those losses to the Wildcats were in the distant past. Since that dreary weekend against UNH, the River Hawks are playing the best hockey in the nation, sporting a 24-3-1 mark in their last 28 games.
“Every team goes through some sort of adversity,” said River Hawks coach Norm Bazin, who will lead his alma mater in search of college hockey’s Holy Grail in 12 short days. “We went through ours early.”
Earning the victory on Saturday was no easy task. Despite UNH being without its top two centers — Kevin Goumas and Grayson Downing, both felled by injury in Friday’s regional semifinal win — the Wildcats battled Lowell tooth and nail.
It wasn’t until Scott Wilson broke a deadlock with 30 seconds left in the second period that Lowell fans among the 8,357 in attendance at Verizon Wireless Arena could feel confident. The gritty sophomore banged home the rebound of his own shot at the left post.
That though, wasn’t enough for Bazin, even though Lowell goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who made 28 saves, including 13 in the final period, is allowing a stingy goal a game over his last 13 games.
“A 1-0 lead against UNH isn’t very settling,” said Bazin.
Bazin and his team got more confidence with 6:02 remaining when rookie Adam Chapie did what Lowell seems to do best. Picking up a loose puck in the defensive zone, Chapie flew up the left wing. With only one hand on his stick, he finally chose to put leverage behind a shot with his free hand and tucked the puck into a seemingly nonexistent hole in UNH goaltender Casey DeSmith (26 saves).
“It was a big goal for us,” said Bazin. “He’s somebody who oddly enough seems to flourish in tough situations. He seems to excel along the wall. It was a big goal to add to a cushion.”
From there, it was up to the Lowell defense, anchored by Hellebuyck, to close the door. Hellebuyck did so, earning his fourth shutout in 13 games and second in consecutive tournament championship games, having blanked BU last weekend, 1-0.
“[Hellebuyck] has been an absolute rock back there for us,” said Wilson. “He brings us the confidence. He might be a quiet kid sometimes, but on the ice he’s really one of our leaders.”
The loss will be a difficult one to swallow for the Wildcats. Missing the NCAA tournament a year ago for the first time in 11 years, UNH hoped to return to the Frozen Four. Facing a red-hot Lowell team was difficult enough, but doing so without Downing and Goumas made the task even tougher.
“It obviously impacts a lot of things [being without the top two centers] — faceoffs, power play, penalty kill,” said UNH coach Dick Umile. “All that said, I thought the guys who stepped in did a terrific job.”
For the victors, the season of firsts, the season of exorcising demons, continues, and for this Lowell team, which will face a Cinderella in Yale two Thursdays from now, there is a lot of hope to add another first, the ultimate one: an NCAA title.
“There are so many exciting things happening on our campus,” said Bazin. “The tagline [of the school] is ‘Progress in Motion.’ I think that applies to the hockey club also.”