In the other bracket were the two perennial powers, Boston University and Boston College. Between the two, they’d won 14 of the 24 Hockey East titles, including the last four. Only once, back in 1988 when Ronald Reagan was still President, had the semifinals been without both teams.
And then there was the Cinderella bracket, Northeastern and Massachusetts-Lowell. The Huskies hadn’t advanced to the semifinals in 14 years. Although they’d just completed a near storybook regular season in which they’d gone wire-to-almost-wire, holding first place until the final day, they came perilously close to extending the drought to 15 in their quarterfinal series with Massachusetts. The Minutemen took the opener, forcing the Huskies to become only the sixth team in league history to lose an opening quarterfinal contest and come back to win the series. It took the Huskies over 10 minutes of overtime in the third game to break the 0-for-14 streak.
All of which paled compared to the recent travails of Lowell. While the River Hawks did advance to the Garden as recently as 2002, the program stood on death’s door just two years ago. The UMass Board of Trustees looked at Division I hockey teams at both the main campus in Amherst and the one at Lowell and concluded that might be one too many. The trustees came perilously close to pulling the River Hawks’ plug.
“We did face a lot of adversity,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald said. “The players aren’t really privy to a lot of the behind the scenes things that kept this program moving. A lot of it was played out away from the boards and glass.
“We’re very fortunate that Marty Meehan was coming on board as our new chancellor. He deserves most of the credit for where we are today. When the chancellor of your school makes a significant commitment to your hockey program and to the coaches, you’ve got a really good chance to be successful.”
So it only seemed appropriate that the two programs for which nothing has ever come easy sent their semifinal game into overtime. Neither team could capitalize in a first period loaded with grade A chances, but at 8:44 Northeastern’s Kyle Kraemer scored as a power play was about to end and just 25 seconds later Rob Rassey made it 2-0. With Hockey East Player of the Year Brad Thiessen making every stellar save needed, the game teetered on being over.
“You figure it will [take] a miracle to get two past him,” Lowell goaltender Carter Hutton said.
But Lowell had long since learned to deal with such adversity. In sweeping Vermont last weekend to get to the Garden, the River Hawks twice faced two-goal deficits. Confidence breeds success which breeds more confidence.
“Thiessen looked almost invincible,” MacDonald said. “But we maintained the way we wanted to play and just kept chipping away. The big goal was Ryan Blair scoring the goal to make it 2-1. That goal got Godzilla off our back.”
With little more than a minute left in regulation, Northeastern — oh so close to a title game berth — committed an agonizing too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty. The River Hawks pulled goaltender Carter Hutton right away for a six-on-four advantage and set up All-Hockey East defenseman Maury Edwards for his cannon of a shot. The rebound caromed to Scott Campbell and the sophomore put it in the wide open net.
Nothing easy for Northeastern. Nothing easy for Lowell.
“We’re Lowell,” MacDonald said. “Our margin of error is very slim going into games. We’re never going to be the prettiest team but we know we can get into battle areas and get our nose bloody.”
Two Cinderellas. One glass slipper.
Three minutes into overtime, Chris Auger deflected a Ben Holmstrom shot to send the River Hawks into the Hockey East championship game for only the second time and first since 1994.
However, the clock hasn’t yet tolled midnight for Northeastern. It has already clinched an NCAA berth, where it will hope to wipe out the sting of the evening’s loss.
“I haven’t even begun to think about that,” NU coach Greg Cronin said. “It’ll take a day or two to get this out of the system. [But] it’s our first time in 15 years to be in the NCAA tournament so we’ll be energized and excited.”
For Lowell, the season lives on for one more game. The River Hawks must win the Hockey East title to advance to the NCAA tournament, but MacDonald used the semifinal win to pay tribute to both the major players, like Meehan, and the minor ones who kept the program alive.
“Our attendance was just under 5,000 this year for Hockey East games so the momentum is just amazing,” MacDonald said. “We had a lot of people volunteer their time to sell season tickets and that type of thing. This is for them really.”