BOSTON — Last year, Massachusetts-Lowell made history.
This year, the theme is “history repeats.”
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A.J. White and Joe Pendenza notched three points apiece, and netminder Connor Hellebuyck proved to be as impregnable as ever as Lowell beat New Hampshire 4-0 to claim the Hockey East crown in front of 12,051 at the TD Garden.
“I thought we started the game rather well,” said Lowell coach Norm Bazin. “The first and second period we were obviously very opportunistic. Getting off to that type of lead certainly eases the tension. …
“Overall, I liked the fact that we blocked several shots. We had sticks in the lane, and I thought guys paid the price and found a way to get it done.”
It’s been quite a transformational run for the River Hawks seniors. “These seniors have been though a lot,” Bazin said. “In the locker room, we were talking about how Derek Arnold was part of a five-win team … and now he’s a two-time Hockey East champion.”
“It’s huge for the program,” Pendenza said. “It’s tough to explain how it’s been, and how it feels right now.”
Hellebuyck was named the tournament MVP, thanks mainly to his 65 saves over two scoreless nights at the Garden. Hellebuyck is not only the first Hockey East player to win the award in back-to-back seasons — he’s the only player to ever win it more than once.
Quite literally, it was nothing doing for UNH, as Hellebuyck’s eye-popping shutout streak at TD Garden extended to 230:01, going back to the only goal he gave up in last year’s Hockey East semifinal against Providence.
Additionally, no goalie has ever skunked both opponents in a Hockey East semifinal and championship game.
While Hellebuyck’s composure and positioning are excellent, the goalie rightly commended his teammates for keeping the opposition’s quality chances to a minimum.
“It’s more of the guys in front of me,” Hellebuyck said. “It’s playoff hockey, and we only play at the Garden for playoff hockey. That brings out the best in the guys in front of me. As you saw tonight, they blocked shots, they did everything, so it’s really on them.”
While the River Hawks had already secured a berth in the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats needed the win for their season to continue. Instead, six seniors, including captain Eric Knodel and star forwards Kevin Goumas and Nick Sorkin, saw their collegiate careers come to an end.
“First off, congratulations to Lowell,” UNH coach Dick Umile said. “Back to back championships — that’s pretty special. They’re an excellent hockey team.
“I was very pleased with the way my team played tonight,” Umile added. “You might not believe that with a 4-0 loss, but I thought they played well. … It just didn’t happen for us tonight. We had our chances — we hit three pipes.”
“It’s been a great couple of weeks,” said Knudel, reflecting on how the Wildcats managed to unexpectedly pull off home ice in the Hockey East quarterfinals to start an improbable run that left them one win short of the national tournament.
“The kids in that locker room are unbelievable. We knew we could do something special. We hit a couple of bumps in the middle of the season there, but we battled through it and stayed positive.”
New Hampshire got off to a good start with an 8-4 advantage in shots at one point in the first period. Their best bid came midway through the period, when Grayson Downing sprung linemates Dalton Speelman and Tyler Kelleher for a two-on-zero breakaway. But the River Hawks defenders hustled back, pressuring the pair, and Kelleher’s shot went wide.
Although New Hampshire looked pretty solid up to that point, the Wildcats repeatedly coughed up the puck when they had possession in their own zone, foreshadowing double trouble to come.
At 12:12, Lowell defenseman Christian Folin intercepted a New Hampshire clearing attempt at the right point, passing to Pendenza in the right-wing circle. Wildcats goalie Casey DeSmith saved Pendenza’s initial shot, but the netminder tried to cover the rebound and failed. Sophomore A.J. White was there to flip the loose puck into the net.
Roughly three minutes later, Lowell made it a 2-0 lead, again on a UNH turnover in its own end. This time, White stole the puck from a Wildcats player at the left point before dishing it toward Pendenza at the far post. Pendenza acrobatically dived to get a backhanded shot on net, but DeSmith equaled the aerial feat with a face-first dive for a terrific initial save.
Unfortunately for Smith, the rebound went right to senior right wing Josh Holmstrom, who had no trouble burying the puck with DeSmith down and out.
That’s how the first period ended, which didn’t bode well for UNH: The River Hawks came into Saturday’s game with a 17-0-3 record when leading after one.
The lead grew to 3-0 at 3:13 of period two. Junior Terrence Wallin picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone and raced up the right wing before spying freshman Joe Gambardella trailing the play, cruising into the slot.
Wallin put the puck on the centerman’s tape, and his 10-foot wrist shot beat DeSmith cleanly.
Given the River Hawks’ defensive stinginess — the team came into Saturday’s game leading the nation with a GAA of just 1.89 — it seemed likely that the third goal might be the charm. But to remove any doubt, Lowell made it 4-0 late in the period.
With just three ticks left on a power play, the River Hawks won an offensive-end draw back to defenseman Jake Suter. The junior’s shot caromed off of UNH defenseman Dylan Maller and went in. It was just Suter’s third collegiate goal in 113 games played.
“You never know who’s going to get the goals; it’s always going to be someone different,” Pendenza said. “It’s tough to combat that.”
“To have a great team at Lowell, you have to have multiple threats,” Bazin said, alluding to the fact that the team had eight different goal scorers over the last two nights.
In the opening minute of the third, Pendenza almost made it 5-0 when he bunted a high rebound into the net past DeSmith. A video review ensued, and the referees ruled that it was a high stick.
UNH almost broke up Hellebuyck’s shutout streak at the three-minute mark, only to have Harry Quast ring a shot squarely off a post. It would have been Quast’s first collegiate goal.
With the game well in hand, there was an entertaining moment at 3:46 when Pendenza was awarded a penalty shot, only to have DeSmith make a terrific glove save on it.
The only suspense remaining related to Hellebuyck’s shutout streak. At 6:30, it looked sure to end, but Dylan Zink blocked a Wildcats shot with his goaltender completely out of position to make a save. It was possibly the most dramatic save of the night, which is a testament to team defense as well as Hellebuyck’s way of making things look easy most of the time.
While UNH (22-18-1) has to wait until next year, the River Hawks (25-10-4) are looking ahead to Sunday’s selection show to learn who they will play in the NCAA tournament.