When you have the heavyweight champ on the ropes, you better put him away when you have the chance. If you let him hang on too long, all of a sudden a left hook will come out of nowhere and you’ll be on the canvas looking up at a referee counting to 10.
That’s why heavyweight champs are the champs.
With its season on the line, UMass-Lowell stared down Hockey East’s heavyweight champ, New Hampshire, and then put it on the ropes for a good portion of the league semifinal.
Leading 2-1 after a first period in which they outshot the number one team in the country, 9-4, the River Hawks dominated the opening minutes of the second period. As it progressed, they had several great opportunities to put the champs on the canvas with a two-goal lead.
“We had a lot of chances to go up 3-1 there,” said Ed McGrane. “Peter Hay had a nice chance. There was a nice two-on-one there. But those things happen in hockey.”
The River Hawks were landing punches, rendering the heavyweight champ vulnerable.
“We’ve played in so many tight games down the stretch trying to get home ice, games with very significant consequences and ramifications,” said UML coach Blaise MacDonald. “So we were used to that sort of pressure.
“UNH, on the other hand, has not had to play under that level of desperation. So I felt that we would have gotten stronger if we had gotten that third goal.
“But… ifs and buts.”
Ifs and buts indeed.
Instead, UNH tied the game at 2-2 off a strange goal from an unlikely source, Kevin Truelson, who had only one previously this season.
“Lowell was really controlling the game when we got that lucky break,” he said. “It’s good that I didn’t miss the net because they probably would have gone off the other way three-on-oh.”
Lowell rose from the canvas, but soon found itself on its backside once more when UNH scored again just 2:10 later for a 3-2 lead.
Having landed most of the punches but been floored by a devastating counterpunch, the River Hawks fought back, going on two power plays. On one, a McGrane tip of a Laurent Meunier shot hit the post and caromed tantalizingly along the goal line and out of the crease.
Ifs and buts.
Moving in for the kill as champs are wont to do, UNH held Lowell to only four shots in the third period and took a 4-2 lead with a Mick Mounsey goal in the opening minute, yet another tally by a defenseman who had scored only once all season.
Lowell narrowed the score to 4-3 off a McGrane goal at 9:46, but as it turned out, the champ could by then only be beaten by a TKO.
And despite pulling the goaltender and getting the puck into the offensive zone in the closing seconds, the River Hawks couldn’t knock out the champs. They’d had their chance, but he’d slipped through their grasp.
“Our guys put it all on the line, I think,” said McGrane. “I’m proud of the guys. I think everyone should hold their head up high.
“No one on this team is a quitter. That’s from day one. If we were going to go out, we were going to go out fighting. That’s the way it was.”
And what of the two goalposts that Lowell hit and the opportunities squandered? Was UNH a little lucky to escape?
“Good teams get a lot of good breaks,” said MacDonald. “When I watch game films on UNH and Maine, in particular, it seems like they get a tremendous amount of puck luck. They work for that puck luck.
“[UNH is] a very, very opportunistic team. Us, on the other hand, we work very hard for our opportunities and then when we get them, we don’t yield as well as UNH in terms of converting those opportunities.”
All of which is not to suggest that UMass-Lowell would have looked out of place in next week’s NCAA Tournament. The River Hawks’ 22-13-3 record leaves them just barely on the outside looking in, but is hardly indicative of them at their best.
“They can play with anybody,” said UNH coach Dick Umile. “They’ve proved that. There’s no question that Lowell is a team that could win it.”
That’s true now and it was true for most of the year. However, Lowell’s season is over because it wasn’t true for a critical five-week stretch that began in mid-January. During that time, the team went 1-7-2, largely because three of the River Hawks’ best players left for the Olympics to play for Team France.
Prior to that disastrous skid, the River Hawks were first in Hockey East and third in the country with a 16-3-1 record. Not only was an NCAA berth theirs for the taking, but a trip to the Frozen Four at St. Paul, Minnesota, seemed a reasonable possibility. And from there….
Ifs and buts.
Since the 1-7-2 stretch did count — and counted in pivotal ways in the NCAA tournament selection criteria — Lowell had to TKO the champ or go home.
As it turned out, they’re going home.
“It’s one of those seasons where you look back and we had 22 wins and we played great… when we had our full team intact,” said MacDonald.
“Do I think we’re an NCAA tournament team? Do I think we could go to St. Paul?
“Absolutely! I think we’re that good. But if you lose three of your best players at the end of the year for seven or eight games — even after they got back it took them a while to get into the swing of things — for a team like Lowell because our margin of error is so slim, it’s very hard to recover from that.
“I think we showed everybody that with them, we’re a real good team. Without them, it’s a very slim margin of error. Our record isn’t a true indicator of how good we were this year.”
Ifs and buts.