LOWELL, Mass. — What was a strong penalty kill suddenly went awry for Vermont just before the 16-minute mark of the first period of a decisive Game 3 in the Hockey East quarterfinals against Massachusetts-Lowell.
Junior defenseman Michael Paliotta found the puck on his stick with space in the River Hawk zone, but failed to clear, turning it over to an unmarked A.J. White in the slot. White fired a hard wrist shot past Vermont goalie Brody Hoffman, which would eventually be the difference as Lowell took the game and the series by a 2-1 final.
With the victory, the River Hawks punch their ticket to the TD Garden for the conference semifinals for the second straight season.
“[Tonight] certainly played out like a Game 3,” said Mass.-Lowell coach Norm Bazin. “It was a close game and I want to compliment Vermont on a terrific regular season and playoff. I thought they were a great opponent and they gave us everything we could handle.”
The Catamounts will now bleakly wait for the rest of the conference tournaments to play out to see if their season is over. At the conclusion of Sunday night’s games, they were 14th in the PairWise rankings, needing to at least fall into the top 16 for a berth in the national tournament.
“I know there’s still an outside shot that we keep playing, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed,” said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon. “It’s a tough feeling, so let’s hope we get to play.”
Sunday’s win marked the fifth consecutive game that the River Hawks had played UVM. They split their finals series of the season in Burlington before meeting in the quarterfinals.
Lowell got on the board first when a confusing play ended with Christian Folin picking up his fifth goal of the season.
Working on the penalty kill, defenseman Jake Suter chipped the puck up to a springing Shayne Thompson and Thompson, leading a three-on-two into the Vermont end, dropped the puck back to Christian Folin, who launched a one-timer that beat Hoffman and then pierced the back of the net, popping back into play for several seconds before a whistle sent the play to review.
“We had a couple of guys down low, so I just decided to jump in [on the rush],” said Folin. “I got a good shot off and it went in.”
After a brief investigation from the officials, the River Hawks had the 1-0 lead.
“We could see it clearly,” said Sneddon. “I was telling out guys just to relax and line up for the faceoff and go again. There was no doubt in my mind that that puck went in.”
The Catamounts were able to cut the lead late in the second stanza on a goal from Jake Fallon.
After working the puck around the Lowell zone on the power play, Nick Bruneteau slung a wide shot that was tipped by Fallon into the back of the net for his fifth of the season.
Vermont was nearly able to draw even midway through the third, when Game 2′s overtime hero, Mario Puskarich, received a cross-ice pass at the bottom of the right circle. However, the freshman’s shot was slammed away by a sprawling Connor Hellebuyck.
Hellebuyck finished the contest with 30 saves.
Hoffman tuned away 17 of the 19 pucks sent his way in his seventh loss of the season.
“That was one of the best college hockey series I’ve been involved with in my career,” said Sneddon. “It was really just a game of inches for three straight games. I’m very proud of our team.”