By NEHJ Staff
MANCHESTER, N.H. – From the Merrimack River to the Three Rivers.
UMass-Lowell has turned the best season in its Division 1 history into an historic one, advancing to its first-ever Frozen Four after beating New Hampshire, 2-0, in the NCAA Northeast Regional final Saturday night at the Verizon Wireless Arena.
Scott Wilson scored in the final minute of the second period, Adam Chapie tacked on some late insurance and freshman Connor Hellebuyck continued his surge with a 28-save effort to boost Lowell in a battle between past and present Hockey East powers.
“It’s almost like a surreal experience for us,” said second-year Lowell coach Norm Bazin. “It’s a great accomplishment and I’m proud of our group.”
The top-seeded River Hawks (28-10-2), who also won the Hockey East regular-season and tournament titles this year for the first time ever, will play Yale (20-12-3) in the national semifinals in Pittsburgh on April 11. The teams did not play during the regular season.
“Our locker room was pumped after the game,” said Lowell defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, who assisted on the game-winning goal. “I can’t imagine how pumped our students are for us.”
Both teams finished with 28 shots on net, but most of the UNH bids were either from long range or bad angles. For the explosive Wildcats, scoring chances were minimal, especially with just one power play all night.
“A lot of credit to them,” said UNH defenseman Connor Hardowa. “They forced us to dump pucks when we didn’t want to. They turned us over when we didn’t want them to.”
A crowd of 8,357 filled most of the arena, favoring UNH but with thousands of blue jerseys cheering on the River Hawks, too.
“When you’re able to include your fans in an experience like this, it’s priceless,” said Bazin, whose team lost to Union in this round a year ago in Bridgeport, Conn.
It was a familiar end point for shorthanded UNH (20-12-7), which lost in a regional final for the fourth time in five years. It was playing without its two highest-scoring forwards, Kevin Goumas and Grayson Downing, who were knocked out of the 5-2 win against Denver Friday and sat out with concussion symptoms.
“Obviously, it affects a lot of things,” said UNH coach Dick Umile (Melrose, Mass.). “Face-offs, power plays. They’re a big part of our offense.”
One night after setting an NCAA tournament record by combining for 33 shots on goal in the first period (19 for Denver), UNH played a defensively sound first two periods, with neither team giving up more than one or two Grade-A scoring chances.
Each team was penalized once in that span and killed it off without too much sweat. It looked likely that the teams would head into the second intermission scoreless, with a winner-take-all third on tap.
With 30 seconds left in the second period, Wilson broke the ice. He got a stick on a Ruhwedel shot that hit the boards behind UNH goalie Casey DeSmith of Rochester, N.H. (26 saves), and knocked it in while falling to the ice.
“My line tonight, Chapie and (Michael) Fallon, made it real easy for me,” said Wilson. “(Ruhwedel) took a shot and it came back out. Then kind of a second effort and it went in.”
With UNH pressing to tie the game in the third, but largely being kept at arm’s length, Chapie added some insurance on a transition rush, roofing a backhand to make it 2-0 with six minutes to go.
Hellebuyck, who wasn’t even the No. 1 goalie when these teams met three times before Christmas – with UNH winning all three games – was named the regional’s Most Outstanding Player. He was joined on the All-Regional team by Wilson, Chapie and Ruhwedel, and forward John Henrion (Holden, Mass.) and defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk of UNH.
And there’s more hockey still to play.
“They’re going to represent Hockey East at the Frozen Four,” said Umile. “We wish them nothing but the best.”