For just a bunch of dogs, Massachusetts-Lowell is awfully close to history

Massachusetts-Lowell beat Vermont to make it to another Hockey East championship game (photo: Melissa Wade).

BOSTON — On Thursday night, Hockey East held its annual awards banquet to recognize and honor its most exceptional players and its top coach.

The creme de la creme.

Hockey East playoffs

See the tournament bracket and get links to schedules and stories at Hockey East Playoff Central.

The Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks might as well have stayed back in their hotel rooms and rested for their semifinal game.

Their coach, Norm Bazin, was not named coach of the year. He was not a runner-up. Boston University’s Jack Eichel earned player of the year and rookie of the year honors. No River Hawks player was a runner-up.

The All-Hockey East first team was announced.

No River Hawks.

The All-Hockey East second team was announced.

No River Hawks.

Another two goaltenders, three defensemen, and four forwards were given honorable mention status. How many of them were River Hawks?

You guessed it. Bupkiss.

The award parade went on, including some announced a day earlier: three stars award … scoring champion … goaltending champion … best defensive defenseman … best defensive forward ….

Even the bleeping sportsmanship award.

Not a River Hawks player to be found, not even as a runner-up.

Clearly, this year’s River Hawks were not hawks at all.

They were just a bunch of dogs.

Bazin mentioned the slight — correction, slights — to his team on Friday morning, then watched his dogs defeat Vermont 4-1 to advance to the Hockey East championship game.

There, they will seek to become just the second team in Hockey East history — Boston College (2010-12) was the first — to win three titles in a row.

Yeah, just a bunch of dogs.

Underdogs.

Underdogs who have made it a matter of pride, an integral part of their culture, to outwork everyone else. Not just when the bright lights of the TV cameras are shining. Not just on the big stage of the TD Garden. But also in the hours spent with no one but themselves watching.

The hours that make a difference.

“[River Hawks] culture is on and off the ice,” senior forward Terrence Wallin said. “It’s hard work. We’re all humble guys. We all work hard, we put in a lot of extra work before practice, after practice and in the mornings.

“It’s the dog mentality, having an underdog mentality.”

That dog mentality took a team devoid of a single Hockey East all-star or even honorable mention and has placed it one game away from history.

How?

And doesn’t every coach, every program, try to attract players who will combine talent with hard work?

“For us, we maybe have to find guys who aren’t finished products, guys who have developed late in their careers, and guys who have a strong, strong work ethic with great character,” Bazin said. “If you find that in recruiting, those players usually do the extra work because they realize how hard they have to work to keep developing in their careers.”

That toughness and tenacity kept the River Hawks going during tough times in the second half. They plummeted from the heights of remaining undefeated in conference play until Jan. 10 — the longest such streak of any team in college hockey — to losing seven of nine.

“As a coach, sometimes when you don’t win games for a little while, you never know if you’re going to win another game,” Bazin said with a wry smile. At such times, the big picture is hard to see. “You look at the bleak picture.”

Ironically, a game at Merrimack in which his team outshot the Warriors 52-17 but lost 2-1 turned the tide.

“That was the turning point,” Bazin said. “The next night, We went back home and won.”

The dog mentality kicked in, and Lowell returned to its winning ways.

No superstars, but a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

And so when their playoffs started and the River Hawks took on Notre Dame in the quarterfinals, four different lines scored in an opening-night 5-0 win.

Similarly, the night after the dogs got shut out of the awards and All-Hockey East teams, four River Hawks players scored goals and nine contributed points to defeat Vermont.

They’re now one game away from their third straight Hockey East championship.

Just a bunch of dogs — underdogs with hearts of lions — looking to make history.