It’s difficult in sports for any team to be both a Cinderella and a favorite.
When you look at this year’s Massachusetts-Lowell’s team, though, both may be apt descriptions. The River Hawks have never reached a Frozen Four until this season. Add in that they opened this season 2-6-1 and you see why few people gave this club a chance.
2013 NCAA Frozen Four
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The Northeast Regional was supposed to give Lowell the ultimate test in the first round against a Wisconsin team that, other than the River Hawks held the nation’s best record since Jan. 1.
But that game ended up being somewhat of a layup for the River Hawks. A 3-0 lead was cut down by a Wisconsin power-play goal, but Lowell got the final three goals of the game. After a tight 2-0 victory over New Hampshire in the regional final, the River Hawks might be playing the best hockey of any club that will skate at the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh.
Lowell coach Norm Bazin, however, is focusing on his team’s preparation much more than on the potential competitors.
“Well, it’s really a focus about us,” Bazin said. “Every team that’s remaining is a very good club. We certainly do feel that every opponent we play is very good. But we remain steadfast in our concentration on our own game plan and how we play.
“And that’s how we approach every single weekend. We have been that way for the last probably 13 weekends.”
If you look at the last 13 weekends, that seems to be the truth.
Thirteen is a magic number to Lowell’s success. Thirteen weekends ago corresponds with Lowell’s first game back after the holiday break. And though the River Hawks entered the break on a modest three-game winning streak, just about everything since the drop of the ball in Times Square has been positive.
Certainly there were some losses, including a tough 1-0 defeat at the hands of rival Merrimack on Feb. 1. But there also were dramatic games that formed character in the team.
On Jan. 25, Lowell overcame a 4-2 deficit on the road to earn a 4-4 tie with Northeastern. The next night against the Huskies, the margin was worse as Lowell trailed 4-1 in the third only to rally to win in overtime.
While those wins gave the River Hawks confidence, they also instilled a sense of urgency to not fall behind. There was a sense of needing to improve every week, something that has seemed obvious down the stretch.
“We’re still trying to improve this week leading up to next week’s games,” Bazin said. “And that’s our goal all the way along, and so far it’s been good for us.”
It has been extremely good through this postseason run for the River Hawks. Even after the most recent bump in the road, a 3-0 loss to Providence on the Friday of the final regular season weekend, Lowell bounced back with a convincing 4-1 win on Saturday to earn the Hockey East regular season title.
Again, the two weekends later there were plenty of doubters as Lowell trailed the same Friars team 1-0 heading to the third period in the Hockey East semifinals. But Lowell mustered two goals to earn the victory.
As the title game against Boston University the following night entered the third period scoreless, there was a wonder if, yet again, Lowell would be stymied by the Terriers. A goal from Derek Arnold provided the belief for the River Hawks began.
ESPN studio host Dave Starman predicted during the NCAA selection show that Lowell would win the national title, something most people thought was hyperbole.
But as this tournament has worn on and legendary names in college hockey have fallen, Lowell fans are asking, “Why not us?”
That same question is on the lips of Lowell’s semifinal opponent Yale as well as the other two semifinalists, Quinnipiac and St. Cloud State.
But Bazin simplified much of the conversation.
“When you can talk about four schools, and obviously somebody’s going to win the trophy at the end here, it’s exciting to know that somebody new is going to be a national champion, and everyone’s going into it with an even playing field,” he said. “There’s going to be some new contender that’s going to take away the prize.
“So we’re thrilled to be one of the four competing teams, and I think all four teams have an equal chance of taking the trophy home.”