WORCESTER, Mass. — This was the Hockey East prize fight that never was.
It’s often hard to live up to the expectations of an instant classic before the puck is even dropped, but Boston College and Massachusetts-Lowell certainly delivered on Sunday.
2014 NCAA Northeast Regional
Defenseman Ian McCoshen broke a 3-3 tie in the third period for the Eagles, who advanced out of a Worcester regional for the fourth straight time.
“[Lowell] battled and competed so hard, they pushed us to the very zenith of our effort,” Eagles coach Jerry York said.
Thatcher Demko (29 saves) outdueled Connor Hellebuyck (25 saves), making not only more saves but perhaps the more difficult ones of the night. That included a heart-stopping combination save just past the game’s midway point, denying both Michael Colantone and Scott Wilson in quick succession with his outstretched right pad.
The 60 minutes were chippy, heated, acrimonious — and relentlessly entertaining. But for most of the game, Lowell was playing catch-up, and only held the lead briefly in the third period before a quick BC response.
“We had to chase the game twice and tie it up,” River Hawks coach Norm Bazin said. “I was hoping to play with a lead for a while, and make him earn it … [but] I didn’t think it was a dealbreaker when they scored after we did.”
As one would expect, jabs were traded early on. From the opening faceoff, each stoppage of play brought an extra chirp, a little jab, a sly bump or two.
But outside of an early set of matching penalties for fisticuffs after the whistle, the ECAC Hockey officiating crew let the fluid pace take over, producing a thrilling, up-and-down contest.
The outcome was in doubt for much of the night, with coaches intently matching lines in an attempt to keep the game tight.
The high quality of play also magnified each mistake.
One such mistake came at 12:57 of the first period, when the River Hawks were slow on a line change that almost immediately became a three-on-one rush, with BC’s Johnny Gaudreau centering the puck for Kevin Hayes in front to slam home the opening goal.
But, as would become a theme, the River Hawks were able to respond at the 18:08 mark, taking advantage of the second of three power-play chances with a wrister from Michael Kapla at the point fluttering through a screen set up in front of Demko.
In the second period, the Eagles again stepped into the lead, with Bill Arnold burying the go-ahead goal after a Gaudreau shot was kicked to the back door by Hellebuyck.
However, another Lowell response followed, this time just 70 seconds later when Josh Holmstrom banged in a loose puck that had dribbled to the top of the crease.
Lowell took its first lead of the game just 43 seconds into the third period when Evan Campbell, in an attempt to center the puck, bounced it off the back skate of Scott Savage and through Demko.
But this time it took only 21 seconds for a response, as Patrick Brown outletted to the neutral zone for Ryan Fitzgerald, who then turned on the afterburners and sliced through the gut of the Lowell defense, faking the backhand, then dragging to forehand to stash it behind Hellebuyck, five-hole.
The goal boosted Demko’s confidence, in his words, “right through the roof. Especially after a weird bounce a couple of seconds into the third.”
He wasn’t beaten the rest of the night.
In addition, Boston College kept winning the puck-possession battle, getting more ice time in the attacking zone and plenty of opportunities for its vaunted top line to work its magic.
With the Eagles buzzing at the 11:16 mark, the Lowell defense began to recede closer to the net. Defenseman Teddy Doherty pinched down the right wing, drawing attention, but also allowing his defensive partner, McCoshen, to creep in. Doherty fed the puck across to McCoshen, who ripped the puck past Hellebuyck to give the Eagles the lead for good, 4-3.
“He’s always talking, he’s one of the louder guys on the team,” Doherty said of McCoshen. “When I was walking down [the wing], I was thinking to shoot it, but thankfully he’s really loud.”
From that moment onward, the River Hawks began to run out of steam — and into stingy backchecking from the Eagles in the neutral zone. But despite a high-intensity effort the night before, Bazin didn’t think fatigue became a factor, instead noting the close chances that Lowell couldn’t bury.
“You’ve got to finish your opportunities, but we had a couple of flurries that we didn’t finish,” Bazin said. “If we plugged away after we scored, it might have been a different outcome.”
With the net empty in the final minute, the River Hawks thrust one last push into the BC zone, but backed by the stellar play of Doherty and McCoshen protecting Demko, the Eagles were able to fend off the pressure and hang on for the win.
“They’re even better than I thought they would be at this point,” York said, beaming about the two freshmen defensemen. “I think they’re going to grow into some really good players.”
The loss denied Lowell an opportunity for a repeat appearance at the Frozen Four and ends a ride for a senior class that built the team from a bottom-feeder into a two-time Hockey East tournament champion.
“It’s pretty special to be part of the group that it was,” graduating River Hawks captain Holmstrom said. “There are a lot of strong guys in there.”
“The culture of the program is in good shape,” Bazin said. “There’s a lot of resiliency in that locker room, to bounce back from hard first season for three great years.”
Next, Boston College faces Union, the team that knocked the Eagles out in the regional round last year.
Bill Arnold noted that, despite another run to the Frozen Four, his team hasn’t forgotten the sting of last year’s early exit and how perilous any single-elimination game can be.
“When you lose that game in the NCAA tournament, it drives home the fact that it’s one and done,” Arnold said. “You don’t get any second chances.”