Francis goal kills comeback as Lowell beats Boston College

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The atmosphere was festive, the excitement palpable. Students queued up around the Tsongas Center several hours before puck drop, spilling onto campus on a crisp fall evening.

It was one of the most anticipated sporting events in recent memory for the Mill City, a rematch of the thrilling NCAA regional final in Worcester last March, one which dashed Massachusetts-Lowell’s dreams of a return to the Frozen Four.

Raising the Hockey East and NCAA tournament banners could have been the capper on a delirious two years in Lowell. After all, the River Hawks lost their top goalie, top scoring line, and top defenseman during the offseason.

But the party continued well into Friday night’s season opener.

A sellout crowd of 7,326, including a school-record 2,635 students, began the night belting a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner (after the scheduled singer had a microphone failure), and ended it with a roar on an empty-net goal, punctuating a 5-2 opening night win for the No. 17 River Hawks.

The raucous student support made a noticeable impression on Lowell coach Norm Bazin.

“I thought the student section was not only noticeable, they carried the momentum,” Bazin beamed after the game. “I’ve been involved with a lot of things in my years in hockey, but them singing the national anthem right off the hop — it really set the tone. When you have a student section like that, the guys are skating six inches in the air. They were really a factor in the game, I thought.”

Lowell’s team chemistry looked remarkably smooth and composed despite so many departures over the off season, seamlessly integrating five freshmen and junior transfer Robert Francis into the line-up without skipping a beat.

It was Francis who knocked home a critical third period goal, allowing Lowell to pull away and seal the win, killing the Eagles’ momentum when it seemed like a classic third-period comeback was in store.

Junior transfer Kevin Boyle shook off the rust, seeing live action for the first time since last suiting up for Massachusetts in February 2013, making 19 saves in his inaugural night between the pipes for Lowell.

Three first period goals from Lowell exposed holes in the Boston College defense, as the River Hawks had their way with the BC blue line in transition all night, especially troublesome for the Eagles given how fleeting their offensive zone time was during the first half of the game.

“Our game became way too complicated with our passing,” Eagles coach Jerry York said afterwards. “Too much criss-crossing and turning away from pucks. I’m not quite sure why, but it’s a simple game, and once you start getting away from that it becomes very hard to play.”

Continuing a theme from last season, the River Hawks scored by committee — a freshman, a sophomore, and a junior tallied goals as the River Hawks sped away from the Eagles, 3-1, in the opening period.

Trailing 1-0 in the first period, the River Hawks jolted to life 7:57 into the period courtesy of Evan Campbell, set up with a perfectly-weighted pass from A.J. White across the slot, knocking it past Thatcher Demko (19 saves), who left a gaping hole on his blocker side.

After the game, Campbell shrugged off the suggestion that the game served as retribution for last year’s NCAA tournament loss.

“It’s nice obviously to win over a good team like BC,” Campbell said. “But it’s just one game in the season.”

Two more goals were added in the first after quick zone entries. Lowell took the lead on a power play after Demko spilled a rebound to the feet of Michael Fallon, then doubled it as freshman Michael Louria redirected a feed across from fellow rookie C.J. Smith.

“It’s been an area we’re trying to work on, and we came in with some speed,” Bazin said about his team’s zone entries. “Our guys had some poise to make plays, and the second wave got involved.”

Lowell dominated zone time and puck possession in the first 30 minutes, but as the game passed the midway point, the pace slowed on the River Hawks’ attack, allowing BC to slowly build confidence.

After a power play passed without any quality chances for Lowell, BC reeled in the River Hawks lead courtesy of acute-angle goal by Ryan Fitzgerald.

However, the River Hawks put the kibosh on any BC comeback, as Lowell followed up a penalty kill 7:48 into the third with Francis taking advantage of a turnover, knocking home a loose puck in front of the net to make it 4-2.

“We got it to 3-2 and we were battling back,” York lamented. “We won the faceoff to Thatcher’s left and there was a turnover that resulted in a goal. That was the turning point in the game.”

It was only the third time in the last 10 games that BC had lost to Lowell, leaving the River Hawks with an extra jolt of confidence to defend their Hockey East title and leaving the Eagles with several questions to answer before next week’s road game at RIT.