For decades, when the Hockey East championship trophy was lifted at TD Garden, it was someone else’s party.
So often, it was Boston College’s, it was Boston University’s, it was New Hampshire’s, it was Maine’s. Those are the only teams that had brought home the title since 1996.
UMass-Lowell was the program with its nose pressed up against the glass, wanting a piece of the action and often being so close and, yet, so far.
On Saturday night, the River Hawks broke through that barrier. In addition to winning the regular-season crown, the No. 1 seed eked out a 1-0 Hockey East championship victory over No. 3 BU in front of 13,738 fans, many of them true believers.
The win not only cemented the River Hawks’ place in league history with their first tournament title, it likely convinced any remaining skeptics that second-year coach Norm Bazin and his squad are forces with which to be reckoned.
It was a bittersweet evening for college hockey fans who saw BU coach Jack Parker’s career behind the bench end after 40 seasons.
Junior right wing Derek Arnold scored the winner at 11:09 of the third period. The River Hawks had a three-on-two rush. A pass by junior defenseman Chad Ruhwedel deflected off the skate of sophomore left wing Scott Wilson.
Arnold collected the puck and beat freshman netminder Sean Maguire on a backhand wraparound at the right post.
“It was just kind of a broken play,’’ said Arnold. “It went off a skate and I think Maguire came out of the net a little bit too much and I saw some daylight. So I went with the wraparound and he was still way out of the net. So, that’s what I saw.’’
Freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who earned tournament most valuable player honors, made 36 stops in the fourth shutout in championship game history.
Sunday night, sometime around 9, Lowell will find out its path to a national title when the pairings for the NCAA Regionals are revealed.
“It’s a championship for Lowell and I’m happy for everyone,’’ said Bazin, whose team improved to 26-10-2. “I think there is a time where you have to say, ‘Why not Lowell?’ and that’s this year. We have great leadership. We’ve talked about Riley Wetmore before but we can talk about him again because he’s a winner. He’s just a substance person. If you have a leader like that, you have a chance. He wasn’t going to be denied tonight.’’
Bazin said his goaltender picked the most important night of the year to have his best game.
Never was Hellebuyck better than the final minute and a half, during which BU threw everything it had at him with an extra attacker on the ice.
“I think we all did what we needed to do,’’ said Hellebuyck.
Bazin was a little more effusive about what the netminder did.
“He has been phenomenal,’’ said Bazin. “You don’t win a championship without a great goalie and tonight, I thought he was spectacular. He was the difference tonight. His poise and his calm demeanor are by far his strongest assets. There is a domino effect from the defensemen to the forwards and when you have that, he gives you a chance to win every night and that’s all you can ask for as a coach.’’
For BU, it was a disappointing end to a season that had many ups and downs. The Terriers, who finished at a more-than-respectable 21-16-2, had an 11-game stumble from Jan. 18-Feb. 23, which turned out to have a catastrophic effect on their postseason chances. During that span, the Terriers went 2-7-2 and suffered a loss to Northeastern and a second loss to Harvard, as well as three defeats at the hands of the River Hawks. It proved too much to overcome. Despite the season being over, Parker said he is more than proud of his squad and he tipped his cap to the River Hawks.
“I was really happy with my team, I was really happy with everything that happened except we couldn’t put it by their goaltender and they got one by ours,’’ said Parker. “Both teams played extremely well. We got 36 shots, we got our chances. I guess it wasn’t to be. I congratulate UMass-Lowell for a terrific season. I thought they were a terrific team all year long. Winning the league and then winning the playoffs is quite an accomplishment for that program.
“I couldn’t ask for more from my team. I couldn’t ask for a better weekend for us. I think there are teams in the national tournament who aren’t as good as us right now. The reason why we aren’t is because we had a dip in the middle of the year. We recovered from [it] as far as playing better, but we couldn’t get that monkey off our back with those losses that we had.’’