Sudden Death at the Whitt

Win or get out the golf clubs. The equation was the same for both teams and it was just that simple.

The similarities ended there.

UMass-Lowell had entered the postseason knowing that its only chance for an NCAA berth lay in winning the Hockey East tournament. Having their backs to the wall, however, was nothing new for the River Hawks, who had opened the season with six losses in their first seven league contests only to rebound impressively. When they rallied in game two of the quarterfinal series on Friday to force a deciding third game, it should have surprised no one.

The postseason landscape was much different for the New Hampshire Wildcats. They’d spent virtually all year in the nation’s Top 10. Based on their position in the NCAA tournament selection criteria, they appeared to be a lock for an invitation unless they were upset in the quarterfinals. Despite a few potholes down the stretch, expectations were high.

The River Hawks’ comeback victory in Friday night’s second game, however, changed all that. Had the season ended before the third contest, UNH would not have made the NCAAs. Presumably, another loss would be fatal.

“We talked about [needing] a win to get to the FleetCenter,” said UNH coach Dick Umile, “and if we got to the FleetCenter, we’d have an opportunity. But if we didn’t, there was a real good chance that we wouldn’t be playing anymore.”

New Hampshire had all the playoff experience. Only Lowell’s seniors could include a single postseason win on their collegiate resumes. By contrast, the Wildcats had been to the FleetCenter the last two seasons and in 1999 had advanced to the national championship game.

In fact, just last year Lowell had finished in the Hockey East cellar, the only team to not make the playoffs. Were the River Hawks really ready to go from the outhouse to the penthouse?

“Last year I don’t think we had the mindset that we belonged at the Fleet Center,” said star defenseman Ron Hainsey. “This year, even after the poor start, we had the mindset that we were going to the FleetCenter and we were going to make some noise.

“We knew we could do something. We felt that we belonged out there with the best teams in the league.”

Even so, Lowell’s playoff inexperience seemed to surface early when goaltender Jimi St. John appeared to be fighting the puck.

“I was a little nervous,” he admitted afterward. “Every one of these guys was. This was probably the biggest game for most of us. The first few shots, I was full of jitters. But after that, it just took a few before I realized it was just another game.”

In time, Lowell took the approach that the pressure was all on the seventh-ranked Wildcats.

“Everybody on our team has played in some kind of intense game situations like this,” said Hainsey. “We came in thinking this was our game to take. All the pressure was on them… but we knew we could get the job done.

“Honestly, what did we have to lose? Not a whole lot. I think in our minds we thought we had a lot to lose, but in reality they were the seventh-ranked team in the country, it was in their building and they were five minutes away from doing it [the night before]. [UNH goaltender Ty] Conklin can only keep so many pucks out. I think as a team we thought they’d be back on their heels tonight.”

At 15:55 of the first period, UNH drew first blood on a Matt Swain goal, but just 22 seconds later, Lowell’s Jeff Boulanger answered. The season-ending match remained tied, 1-1, through the second period.

Boulanger’s second goal of the game at 8:25 of the third period highlighted yet another difference between the two combatants. While UNH’s offensive bread and butter is the transition game, the River Hawks live along the boards, using their superior size to full advantage.

Boulanger and his linemates Nick Carso and Steve Slonina worked the puck along the end boards, down behind the UNH net, and in short order Boulanger was letting his shot go from the slot. Conklin got a piece of it with his glove, but then it trickled into the net.

A pall settled over the Whittemore Center crowd. They were stunned. This couldn’t be happening.

A few minutes later, however, the fans recovered. They were on their feet exhorting their Wildcats, albeit annoyed at the visiting fans in the corner who kept chanting, “UML! UML!”

Possibly rattled just a little, Lowell turned the puck over in its own slot, creating a great chance that St. John foiled. Another sloppy turnover two minutes later at the blue line forced another strong save.

“I’m sure Jimi remembers those,” said UML coach Tim Whitehead with a laugh. He then dismissed any connection between the turnovers and playoff inexperience. “These guys have been in big games whether it’s in college or juniors or anywhere. But it gets tight at the end of the game. We’re just fortunate that they didn’t capitalize. But over the full 10 minutes [at the end], we did make the smart plays.”

When the final buzzer sounded, UNH’s season appeared over. The Wildcats had played their last game.

They could only look back at game two when they had held a 1-0 lead with six minutes to play. Six minutes away from the FleetCenter and a probable NCAA berth. Unfortunately, those six minutes had been a Red Sox-ian six minutes.

After the heart-breaking loss, Umile was asked if he looked back at that lost opportunity.

“Absolutely,” he said and then was silent for 10 seconds. Having a change of heart, he then added, “Last night was over last night …

“The team played hard. It had a good season. It was disappointing that we didn’t go as far as we would have liked. But they’re a good team and I’m proud of the way they played.”

A downcast Conklin had all the appearance of a young man who knew he’d played his last collegiate game.

“It’s not very likely that we’re going to go on,” he said. “It’s [the end of] a season for everybody and a career for nine guys. What are you going to say?

“Obviously we hope that something happens, but right now it’s not looking too likely.”

As it turns out, there’s still a glimmer of hope. The game was sudden death, but the phone may still ring with the governor’s pardon.

Boston University upset Providence to force a deciding game on Sunday, leaving the possibility that UNH might still be alive for the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats no longer hold their fate in their own hands, but if Providence loses on Sunday and Clarkson wins the ECAC tournament and …

The odds aren’t in UNH’s favor. But there is still a chance.

“We’re not leaving town,” said Conklin.


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