In a conference known for its hockey pedigree, for its national titles and title contenders, UMass-Lowell doesn’t exactly have the same sort of legacy, the same sort of caché.
But on Saturday, when UMass-Lowell matches up with a bigger name in the Hockey East championship game, the River Hawks will come with the talent and the hot streak to take their first title.
To get to the final — the third in program history — the River Hawks came back from a one-goal deficit with two scores in the third period to beat Providence College, 2-1, at TD Garden Friday night.
“I thought we got a little bit better as the game went along, but they gave us all we could handle,” UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin said. “It was a real battle getting sustained pressure.”
The River Hawks did, finally, with Scott Wilson scoring the winner with 12:30 gone in the third period.
“We’ve come back from a goal [down] before in a couple games this year,” Wilson said. “So we weren’t really stressed out too much. We really just wanted to get back to our game. It came through for us.”
It’s not surprising that UMass-Lowell is in this position, having become the first Hockey East team outside of Boston College, Boston University, Maine, and New Hampshire to win a regular-season conference title in the last 29 years. The team is now 19-3-1 in the second half of the season, winning when it mattered most.
The River Hawks lost in the final to BU in 2009 and 1994, when Bazin was a senior on the team. Saturday they’ll get another shot at the Terriers, who beat BC, 6-3.
“It’s a different feel,” Bazin said. “When you’re there as a player, I don’t think you appreciate it as much. When you’re coaching and you realize how difficult it is to get into those situations, you try to pass it along to the younger generation and make sure they realize that they can take nothing for granted.”
But early in the game, it didn’t look like it might go UMass-Lowell’s way. Providence, which might have lost a chance at the NCAA Tournament with the defeat, scored first.
The Friars went up 8:59 into the first period as Kevin Rooney notched the first goal of his collegiate career, assisted by Noel Acciari and his cousin, Chris Rooney.
“We got the start that we wanted to,” coach Nate Leaman said. “Got a big goal from our fourth line. Thought our fourth line was tremendous tonight.”
Providence held that lead through the rest of the first period and all of the second, even though there was a near-score by the River Hawks with 3:58 to go in the second. The play was reviewed, the long delay ultimately ending with a no-goal ruling.
UMass-Lowell had come out far more aggressive in the second period, getting more and better chances, with 15 shots to Providence’s seven. As Leaman put it, “I thought we got scrambley. We got a little immature.”
But the River Hawks couldn’t break through. Not yet.
“Fortunately for us, we were able to transition a little quicker, and it’s part of how we solved things today,” Bazin said. “I didn’t think we were penetrating or sustaining any pressure in the first period and a half, and as the game went along, because of that transition, we were able to maybe have two or three shifts back to back of sustained pressure. That’s a key against a good team.”
It was just 34 seconds into the third period when UMass-Lowell’s A.J. White stuck a rebound past Jon Gillies to make it 1-1. It was White’s second goal of the season.
UMass-Lowell got the winner 12 minutes later, with Wilson taking a centering pass from Riley Wetmore and sending the puck past Gillies, the freshman goaltender with the .931 save percentage.
Gillies said, “It was kind of a bouncing puck. I saw it. It was just more of a surprise. I didn’t have my feet fully set. The puck just died right under his stick. He got all the wood on it.”
“One-one in the third, it comes down to a bounce,” Leaman said. “They won the one-on-one battle around our net for the game-winner.
“At the end of the day, Scott Wilson makes a play. That was a heck of a play. He’s a big-time player and he made a heck of a play in a 1-1 game.”
And with that, UMass-Lowell is on to the final, up against a team with a greater profile and national titles under its belt. That hardly matters to Bazin’s crew, though.
As Bazin said, “Somebody’s got to win the trophy. Why not us?”