The Season in a Microcosm

It looked like the final six minutes of UMass-Lowell’s season on Friday night. After dropping the first game of its Hockey East quarterfinal series to New Hampshire one night earlier, the River Hawks trailed 1-0.

One-goal deficits aren’t usually cause for despair, but they can be when you’re facing UNH goaltender and frequent brick wall, Ty Conklin. The reigning Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week, who last Saturday set a league record with his fourth shutout of the season, appeared to be ready to add No. 5.

In the first period, Conklin had foiled eventual UML heroes Peter Hay and Ed McGrane on a two-on-one. He stood tall during a five-on-three Lowell man advantage in the second as well as excellent chances by Geoff Schomogyi and Hay. Early in the third, Conklin stoned Chris Gustafson at the doorstep on three successive shots.

At the other end, Lowell goaltender Jimi St. John had stopped all but the Johnny Rogers rebound of a Corey-Joe Ficek shot. St. John would eventually finish with 33 saves on 34 shots, but late in the third it still looked like that wouldn’t be enough.

“Everybody knows that Ty Conklin is the guy in the league to play against,” said St. John. “I just tried to match him save-for-save and hopefully pull it out.

“Going late into the third and knowing that we had to go against Conklin, who is one of the best goalies in the league, is tough. You’re just hoping to get that bounce.”

Lowell got that bounce when Yorick Treille, one of its most talented forwards, took off on a breakaway.

Nice deke by Treille.

Save, Conklin.

So much for that bounce.

“When you see an open breakaway and Conklin makes the big save,” said McGrane, “you kind of think to yourself for a second [that it might have been the last chance to tie it]. But we got those chances the whole game and there wasn’t any stopping us from getting another one.

“You sit back for a second, but you’ve got to keep going. You can’t put your head down for too long or the game is just going to go right by you. You just have to keep your head up and look for the break.”

That resilient attitude had manifested itself early this season when the River Hawks got off to as disastrous 1-6 start in Hockey East action. Firmly entrenched in the cellar the year after a last-place finish, the Hawks would have had ready-made excuses for rolling over and dying. Instead, they turned their season around and became one of the best teams in the league over the second half.

“[The game] was just the way our season started,” said St. John, who himself rode the bench for much of the first semester. “We were down and out for a little bit and then we started getting some bounces and picked it up.”

The bounce that finally paid off came in the form of a power play at 13:22. McGrane redirected a pass from Tom Rouleau into the net and it suddenly was a brand new game.

It would be left to Hay, a freshman who few knew about in December, to get the game-winner off a great feed from Brad Rooney with 1:27 remaining.

If the game’s rough-start-good-finish was Lowell’s overall season in a microcosm, it also mirrored Hay’s introduction to collegiate hockey.

“Unfortunately, he had mono last year,” said UML coach Tim Whitehead. “Then [he] got injured in the preseason [this year] so he got off to a very slow start. … It seemed like every week something happened to him — just freak things. … But he’s worked extremely hard.”

That hard work didn’t start to pay off until January, when Hay finally began to insert himself into the lineup. Prior to that, it was difficult for the freshman not to look at the season as potentially a lost one.

“It comes across your mind, but you just take it out of your mind and keep working as hard as you can and hope to get into the lineup,” he said. “Eventually it just worked out and everything has been clicking since then.”

Clicking indeed. With 1:27 remaining, Hay roofed his shot past Conklin and put Lowell into a third and deciding game against UNH on Saturday.

The goal was Hay’s sixth of the year in just his 17th game and certainly his most important one.

Which just goes to show that you can’t count out this year’s River Hawks. Not individually, as Hay and St. John have proved. And not as a team, even after a 1-6 start of the season or a deficit against arguably the best goaltender in the East with just six minutes to play.