WORCESTER, Mass. — Massachusetts-Lowell coach Norm Bazin said it best: “The fans definitely didn’t get cheated tonight.”
No, they did not.
2014 NCAA Northeast Regional
The box score said Lowell came away with a 2-1 win to advance to the Northeast Regional final on Sunday, with Huggins being given the loss.
But if this was baseball, Huggins would have earned a no-decision for his performance — stellar for 60 minutes, beaten by a short-handed breakaway goal that Joe Pendenza stashed through Huggins, five hole.
As he would later joke about in postgame comments, it’s his one nagging weakness.
“I’ve kind of had problems with five-hole all year,” Huggins said. “The guys score on me all the time [in practice].”
But the goal proved, in the end, to be the decisive advantage, as the Mavericks trailed from the 12:54 mark onward and ran into a River Hawks team that continued to leverage Hellebuyck’s strong play, supplemented with excellent defensive protection and shot blocking.
“Really, no regrets other than not moving on,” Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said. “I think we left it all out there.”
The game wasn’t without opportunities to extend the lead — the River Hawks hit several posts on the night, and had trouble solving Huggins when shots did find their way between the pipes.
“Some nights you’re only going to get one or two goals by a goalie,” Pendenza said. “You try to not let it creep into your mind. We try to stay positive. It’s important to stay positive when you can’t bury it. Once you turn to the negative, it all goes downhill.”
The River Hawks controlled the tempo in the opening period, forcing the play in the Mavericks’ end. Luckily for the Mavericks, Huggins was up to the task, making several difficult combination saves on rebound tries that couldn’t be cleared out by his defense.
Just when it seemed that the Mavericks could alleviate the pressure with their first power play at 11:54, in came Pendenza, blocking a shot from Minnesota State’s Zach Lehrke and scooping the puck forward in the neutral zone on a breakaway.
Pendenza head-faked ever so slightly to draw Huggins out of position, then slipped the puck through the five-hole for the short-handed tally, giving the River Hawks a 1-0 lead.
“Defensively, they were hunting us down,” Mavericks captain Johnny McInnis said.
The River Hawks missed extending the lead multiple times by hitting posts or barely missing on scrambles that pushed Huggins to the edge of control.
“Both goalies were exceptional,” Bazin said. “We failed to nail down the game several times. We had a couple opportunities to make it 2-0.”
To the Mavericks’ credit, they began to shore up the defensive zone, blocking shots and providing more tactical support for Huggins as the second period began.
The improved execution in the defensive zone translated to more plentiful (and higher-percentage) chances in the offensive zone.
But the puck never went through. First, it was Chase Grant blasting a centering pass off Hellebuyck’s right pad, a booming save that prevented a goal on the rush for Minnesota State.
Minutes later on the rush, Dylan Margonari rifled a shot past Hellebuyck’s glove but off the inside of the post and back out — another bullet dodged for the River Hawks’ transition defense.
A third try wouldn’t go: Teddy Blueger drove toward the River Hawks’ net, jamming a shot short-side and creating a rebound that popped to Bryce Gervais wide open no more than 15 feet from goal and staring at a wide-open net, but couldn’t finish off the chance.
Like Huggins, Hellebuyck put on a show, dazzling with the assert control over his crease, directing rebounds away from trouble or getting help from his defense along the way.
“I thought the guys in front of me were great tonight,” Hellebuyck said. “They were playing to win, [instead of] not to lose.”
The drama led to a tense third period, as Huggins continued to stonewall Lowell opportunities while the Mavericks ratcheted up their pressure in the offensive zone. After trailing in shots throughout the game, the Mavericks outshot the River Hawks 29-21 in the final two periods.
In the final 70 seconds, Hastings elected to call Huggins to the bench, opening up an empty net which Zack Kamrass fired to from 150 feet away, burying the eventual game-winning goal.
Even though Zach Stepan gave Minnesota State a last-gasp goal in the final 10 seconds to end Hellebuyck’s shutout streak at 201 minutes, it wasn’t quite enough.
The loss sent the Mavericks packing for the second straight year in the opening round, but Hastings was earnest in his praise.
“A year ago we had a really good regular season, won our first playoff series and got to the Final Five,” Hastings said. “Inside the first 60 seconds, we were down 1-0 to Wisconsin. And we didn’t really recover from that [in the NCAA tournament]. This year I think it’s been a little different. I don’t think our guys were satisfied with having just a little success.”
Meanwhile, the River Hawks move on to face Boston College in a hotly-anticipated regional final Sunday, with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line.