Sports

UMass-Lowell wins its first Hockey East regular-season title

UMass Lowell hockey players celebrate their victory over Providence College placing them on top of the Hockey East standings at Providence College, Saturday, March 9, 2013. Gretchen Ertl for the Boston Globe
UMass Lowell hockey players celebrated their victory over Providence College on Saturday. (Gretchen Ertl for The Boston GlobeThe Boston Globe

Before the action began Saturday, there were enough possible scenarios in Hockey East to cause a brain cramp.

The standings were so tight that the only factor that had been decided Friday night was which teams would not make the postseason — that turned out to be Northeastern and Massachusetts.

The real excitement surrounded which team would take home the regular-season title. UMass-Lowell and Providence had never accomplished that feat and both had a league-leading 32 points heading into Saturday’s matchup at Schneider Arena.

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In the end, the River Hawks bested the Friars, 4-1, and took home top honors and the No. 1 seed for the first time in program history under second-year coach Norm Bazin.

Once UMass-Lowell won it outright, the dominoes fell into place regarding the rest of the seeds. Next weekend’s quarterfinals will pit the No. 1 seed against No. 8 Maine, with the series beginning Thursday because of a building scheduling issue.

No. 2 Boston College, which throttled Vermont, 7-2, at Gutterson Fieldhouse, will see the Catamounts again for their best-of-three series beginning Friday.

No. 3 Boston University, which ended Northeastern’s season with a 5-0 shutout, will take on No. 6 Merrimack.

The fourth quarterfinal pits No. 4 Providence against No. 5 New Hampshire, which squandered an opportunity for home ice by earning only 1 of a possible 4 points in two home games against Maine over the weekend.

Providence, UNH, and BU all finished with 32 points.

BC coach Jerry York said playing Vermont again so soon is fine with him. “It’s playoff hockey and it’s just a different atmosphere,’’ said York, whose team took 3 of a possible 4 points against the Catamounts this weekend.

The Eagles received good news when it was learned senior defenseman Patch Alber, who was expected to be out for the rest of the season after undergoing knee surgery Jan. 1, has been cleared to return.

“We’re getting back toward healthy,’’ said York. “Patch Alber will be full up on Monday. That’s remarkable. He battled and battled in January and February and now March. That will help our defensive corps.’’

York said he thinks his team has made some improvements recently and he expects it to be more than ready to go when the postseason begins.

“I thought our team played better over the weekend than we have recently so I felt pretty good about how we played,’’ he said. “Hats off to Lowell for winning it. Now, tomorrow, we wake up, reset and get involved with trying to win the Lamoriello [Trophy].’’

One of the most dangerous teams in Hockey East down the stretch was Maine. Despite their mediocre conference record (7-12-8), the Black Bears have been playing their best hockey.

The Black Bears’ first semester was nothing short of disastrous with just two victories in their first 15 contests. But the team caught fire in the second semester behind the strong goaltending of junior Martin Ouellette.

Maine finished with eight victories in its final 19 games and earned points in 14 of those (8-5-6).

UNH coach Dick Umile was crestfallen by his team’s 4-4 tie Saturday, which cost the Wildcats home ice and was particularly disappointing after losing leads of 2-0 and 3-1. Maine coach Tim Whitehead was thoroughly heartened by his team’s performance.

After battling injuries and assorted adversity throughout the challenging season, with a playoff berth looking like a pipe dream at times, the No. 8 seed has new life.

“It was an exciting weekend of hockey, probably too exciting sometimes for the coaches,’’ said Whitehead. “The tie, it’s tough to know what to say, to be honest. You don’t feel great and you don’t feel brutal. It’s a tie. Both teams played well. I’m happy for our crew to make the playoffs most importantly and to get a chance to play another weekend.’’

Whitehead said this year has been one of the tougher ones in terms of what his team has been through.

“We’ve come a long way since the start of the year,’’ he said. “We were 2-11-2 before Christmas. We’ve fought through a lot of injuries and a lot of close games like this. We just want to keep playing. We love coaching this group. It’s such a great group of young men. They’ve stuck together. The seniors have been fabulous and they’ve really fought through a lot. There were quite a few injuries in that senior class, in fact, which can be frustrating. They’ve had three winning seasons in a row and there was a lot of weight on their shoulders with a young team and they fought through it. We’re proud of them.

“This was an important weekend for us. Out of respect to the game, too, and just how far we’ve come, we wanted to leave it all out there.’’

Ouellette, who had 31 saves against UNH on Saturday, has been a stabilizing force in net.

He finished the regular season with a record of 9-10-8, a goals-against average of 2.38, and a save percentage of .917.

“Marty has been great,’’ said Whitehead. “He’s very similar to the team. He has just kept getting better. He just keeps improving. He’s come a long way. We got him as a true freshman and it was a tough adjustment but he’s made the adjustment now. He’s been very impressive and he’s just going to keep getting better. He’s a great competitor.’’

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