One Year Later, Lowell Taking Care of Business
by Mike Machnik/CHN Senior Editor
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MANCHESTER, N.H. One year ago, Massachusetts-Lowell took a 3-0 lead against Miami in its first NCAA tournament game in 16 years, then saw the RedHawks come back to tie before the River Hawks squeaked out a win in overtime.
Combined with a Hockey East quarterfinal loss to Providence last season and an exit in the NCAA East Regional final against Union, it was no surprise that big game experience was lacking for UML.
Tonight, a year later, the River Hawks looked like a different team, putting on a very business-like performance in dispatching WCHA champion Wisconsin, 6-1, before 8,049 in the first Northeast Regional semifinal at the Verizon Wireless Arena. UML will meet New Hampshire on Saturday for the right to move on to the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh.
"I feel we have a vastly different team than we had last year," said second-year Lowell coach Norm Bazin. "There's three new defensemen, a different goalie in net. There's four or five new freshman forwards — that's a lot of guys."
UML scored twice in the second period to extend a one-goal lead to 3-0 and got three of its first four goals on odd-man rushes. Six different players scored, with freshman defenseman Christian Folin's early-second-period goal holding up as the winner, and rookie goaltender Connor Hellebuyck stopped 31 of 32, including a first-period penalty shot by Wisconsin's Jefferson Dahl that would have tied the game.
It continued a dominating postseason run for Lowell. Counting the final game of the regular season which the River Hawks entered with a chance to win the school's first ever Hockey East regular season title and continuing through the postseason to date, UML has won six straight big games and outscored the opponents, 19-6.
Hellebuyck had a postseason shutout string of 159:20 finally snapped by the Badgers' Nic Kerdiles on the power play in the third. At 3-1, you'd think it would give the Badgers life. Instead, Lowell brushed that one off and came back with three unanswered goals to win going away.
It was almost as if giving up that shutout-breaking goal annoyed the River Hawks more than anything. They maintained control of this one much of the way, and they weren't about to let the Badgers get back in it easily.
"I feel we've got greater depth in certain areas, and that's why we're a different club," Bazin said.
Besides Folin and Hellebuyck, fellow rookie Ryan McGrath scored a goal and set up Derek Arnold's third period strike that regained a three-goal lead for the River Hawks. Adam Chapie was on the ice in a big defensive situation late and scored an empty-netter to help put the game away. A.J. White set up leading scorer Joseph Pendenza for a first-period goal that snapped a scoreless tie. The contributions from freshmen throughout the lineup certainly make the River Hawks that much stronger.
Still, there's no denying the effect of experience for Bazin's returners, players who have last year's postseason experience under their belts.
Were they just "happy to be here" last year? The River Hawk mentor came pretty close to saying it.
"Last year was an adrenaline rush," said Bazin. "That's the best way I can describe it.
"The whole season — it was almost like we never took a breath. It was an exciting, exciting time. People were thrilled to be somewhere."
This year, it's a different story.
"This weekend, we came here for two games," Bazin said. "That's not arrogance. We came here for a weekend. We had a weekend the weekend before, at the Boston Garden. And the weekend before that, we had a weekend where we had to try to eliminate a good Maine team.
"We're going in for weekends."
The way they've been going, they just might have one more weekend to go after Saturday night.