Lowell blanks UNH for Hockey East title

AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

BOSTON -- Hockey is a game of bounces. Come playoffs, everyone is hoping for a little puck luck. Both UMass Lowell and New Hampshire were beneficiaries of the bounces on Friday, each getting game-winning goals that deflected off their opponents. But on Saturday, the Lowell River Hawks proved effort could trump Lady Luck, as they outskated and outhustled the UNH Wildcats to defend their Hockey East crown with a convincing 4-0 victory before 12,051 at TD Garden.

"Tonight wasn't a work of art, but we found a way, and that's a good trait of a winning club," said UML coach Norm Bazin, who has now taken his squad to the NCAAs each of the three years he's been at Lowell.

In the end, the third time wouldn't prove the charm for UNH, which dropped two tough decisions to UML in early November. Lowell (25-10-4) swept past the Wildcats (22-18-1) behind timely scoring, a tenacious defense, and the rock-solid goaltending of tourney MVP Connor Hellebuyck to capture its second Hockey East title. Even though the River Hawks' lofty Pairwise Ranking (No. 7) assured them a spot in the NCAA tournament, they can now head into the field of 16 on a big-time roll.

"Congrats to Lowell," said UNH coach Dick Umile. "Back-to-back championships, that's pretty special. They're an excellent hockey team."

Hellebuyck, who become the only player in the league's 30-year history to win a second tournament Most Valuable Player award, didn't give up a goal in back-to-back 4-0 victories, and hasn't surrendered a single tally at TD Garden since the semifinals in 2013, when the River Hawks beat Providence, 2-1 (he shut out Boston University, 1-0, in last year's final).

"Connor is stellar," said Bazin. "There's no question that you don't win a championship without a good goalie, and he's provided us with great goaltending all year."

Hellebuyck, however, was quick to share his accolades with his teammates. "It's more the guys in front of me," said the sophomore from Michigan. "It's playoff hockey, and we play hard in playoff hockey, and it brings out the best in the guys in front of me, I think you saw that tonight. They blocked shots, they really did everything. So it's really on them."

The Wildcats, meanwhile, saw their season, and hopes for a 23rd NCAA tournament bid, come to a decisive end.

"I thought our team competed, played hard. It just didn't happen," said Umile. "The difficult part is it's a team with great chemistry. We wanted to keep going. Not only were we winning and playing hard, but we were having fun."

The weekend showcased Lowell's depth. On Saturday the River Hawks got goals from four different players, none of whom scored the night before in UML's 4-0 win over Notre Dame.

"It's been a point of emphasis since I arrived" at Lowell, said Bazin. "To have a great team at Lowell, you have to have multiple threats. We don't have the 50-, 60-point guy. But we have an awful lot of good hockey players. And we feel that (because scoring) can come from any line, that makes us a real threat. And as you can see from these last two games, it can come from anywhere. You need strong goaltending and you need strong defense, but four goals a game is pretty good."

In a game that was fast and physical from the start, both teams got decent chances early on. Midway through the opening period, New Hampshire had the first Grade-A chance, when Wildcat Dalton Speelman got a step behind the Lowell defense and broke in on Hellebuyck. The River Hawk defenders closed the gap, and before he could get off a shot, Speelman dished a pass to linemate Tyler Kelleher. But UML's Christian Folin, hustling back, broke up Kelleher's bid at the right post.

It would prove to be a pivotal play, as Lowell got the all-important first goal, breaking the scoreless tie just two minutes later. Lowell's Joe Pendenza, the team's leading scorer, sent a wide-angle prayer on net that UNH goalie Casey DeSmith blocked. But the junior netminder was a split second too slow to cover the loose puck, and UML's A.J. White split the UNH defense and tapped it past DeSmith for a 1-0 River Hawks lead.

At 15:28, the River Hawks doubled up, again with Pendenza and White in the thick of the play. White made a crisp cross-ice pass to an open Pendenza, who snapped a shot toward an open net that was denied by a spectacular diving glove save by DeSmith. But the puck squirted into the slot, and UML's captain Josh Holmstrom pounced, shoveling a shot into the net to put the Wildcats in a 2-0 hole.

It was a significant tally, as Lowell came into the game undefeated, with a 17-0-3 record, when leading after the first period. And things would go quickly from bad to worse for the Wildcats.

Just 2:13 into the middle period, the River Hawks bumped their lead to 3-0. Lowell's Terrence Wallin carried the puck into the UNH zone along the right wall, patiently waiting out the Wildcats defense before finding trailing Joe Gambardella in the slot. Wallin hit his linemate in stride, and the freshman from Staten Island snapped the puck past UNH's Brett Pesce and DeSmith's blocker to put Lowell in command.

Hellebuyck, meanwhile, looked twice the size of his 6-foot-4 frame, finishing the second period with 120 consecutive saves in Hockey East play at the TD Garden, dating back to last year. He would end the game with a shutout streak at TD Garden of 230 minutes, and the first-ever back-to-back shutouts in the final two nights of the tournament. However, his defense did a superb job taking time and space away from the Wildcats forwards, who found no room to make plays.

"They're a great defensive team. They play their systems unbelievably," said UNH senior captain Eric Knodel. "Their defense (seems to) block every shot. They do a great job making sure their goalie doesn't get the hard save. He gets the easy save, which is good for them. They limited our opportunities, but we got a couple there, and we should have capitalized on them."

With just over a minute remaining in the second, Lowell put the game completely out of reach. UML defender Jake Suter gathered the puck in the high slot off a faceoff, waited for White to set up a screen in front of DeSmith, and then ripped a shot that ticked off Wildcats defender Dylan Maller and past the UNH netminder for a power-play strike and a 4-0 lead.

The River Hawks thought they had stretched their margin to 5-0 just 28 seconds into the third, but Pendenza's adroit tip past DeSmith was ruled a high stick, and waved off. At 3:46, Pendenza had another chance to pad Lowell's lead, when he was awarded a penalty shot. DeSmith, however, robbed the senior's backhand attempt with his glove, and then defiantly tossed the puck out to center ice.

With only 6:30 left in the game, Hellebuyck's shutout streak appeared over when the sophomore was caught out of position, but UML's Dylan Zink jumped in front of a point-blank Wildcat bid and blocked the shot. It was as close as the Wildcats would come to breaking through the Lowell defense.

Now, the River Hawks will set their sights on the NCAA tournament, with the goal of improving on their Frozen Four appearance last year, when they lost in the semifinals to Yale in overtime.

"I mentioned before the weekend started that I think this could be the best team I've coached in my three years. And I still believe it," said Bazin. "We ran into a rash of injuries halfway through the year, that we were able to overcome, and that proved to me that these guys can fight through a lot of stuff. They're a resilient bunch. I'm glad we won the championship, so I didn't eat my words.

"They don't always find the easy way, that's why I have so much gray hair," he said. "But they get it done in the end."