In season of firsts for Massachusetts-Lowell, getting to Frozen Four a ‘surreal experience’

With a 2-0 win over New Hampshire, Massachusetts-Lowell completed a hat trick of first-time achievements.

Three weeks ago, the River Hawks earned their first-ever Hockey East regular season title. Last week, they won their first-ever league tournament championship. And Saturday night at the Northeast Regional, they punched the ticket for their first trip to the Frozen Four.

2013 NCAA Northeast Regional

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“This is almost a surreal experience for us,” Lowell coach Norm Bazin said. “It’s such a great accomplishment and we’re really proud of our group.”

Lowell had come within a single game of the Frozen Four three times before.

In 1994, the Chiefs, as they were then called, defeated Michigan State on its own ice 4-3 to set up a clash with Minnesota. In those days of a 12-team tournament, the Gophers, as one of the top four overall seeds, received a first-round bye. As a result, they rested while the Chiefs were pushed to the limit by the hosts.

Even so, Lowell led Minnesota 1-0 with five minutes remaining in regulation, anchored by goaltender Dwayne Roloson. The Gophers scored, however, and then in the second overtime defeated the exhausted Chiefs.

“1994 is a long time ago,” said Bazin, who played on that team. “They’re different experiences. As a player, you enjoy the experience but you know that it may not come again.”

Although it came again two years later with the Chiefs again defeating Michigan State but losing to a Colorado College team that had enjoyed its bye, 1996 almost became the program’s last hurrah.

From then to last year, the Chiefs-turned-River Hawks failed to make the NCAA tournament at all, though they came close several times. They also came close to losing the program entirely.

Last year, Bazin returned to his alma mater, and Lowell completed the single greatest turnaround for a first-year coach in Division I history, going from 5-25-4 to 24-13-1. The River Hawks also defeated Miami 4-3 in overtime of their first NCAA regional game, but once again came up a game short of the Frozen Four, falling to Union 4-2.

Arguably, that year’s team was one year away. Not so with this year’s edition.

In again getting to within one game, the River Hawks defeated Wisconsin 6-1, displaying an air-tight defense and a maturity not found the season before.

“They play hard, they play as a team, and they know what it takes to win,” Wisconsin defenseman John Ramage said after the game.

The River Hawks carried that same approach into their regional final contest against New Hampshire.

“They played a really tough game,” UNH forward John Henrion said. “They thrive off their forecheck. Anything in the neutral zone gets deep.

“It’s tough for our defenseman, as it would be for any team, to constantly have to go back and fetch pucks. And from there they get on the puck, they forecheck hard and they kind of trap us. Then on the 1-2, they sit back and it’s hard to make plays.”

The River Hawks frustrated New Hampshire, as they’ve done to almost every team over the second half of the season, during which they’ve gone 22-3-1.

And with the 2-0 win, Lowell completed the hat trick of first-evers.

“For the school, it’s priceless,” Bazin said. “Every [other] sport is moving to Division I and it’s exciting for the school to see what big-time Division I is all about.

“When you go to a Frozen Four, it’s really a great showcase of four great teams, the country’s four best teams. It’s good for the school and it’s exciting for River Hawk nation, a lot of whom you saw tonight. When you’re able to include your fans in an experience like this, it’s priceless.”

The River Hawks have now put themselves only two wins away from a national championship.

Which would be the most perfect of firsts in a season filled with them.