By John Powers
Globe StaffThey knew that the trophy existed. It just always belonged to somebody else. Was it ever going to be UMass-Lowell’s time to win the Hockey East tournament? “To be honest, no,” Derek Arnold confessed after he had been asked if he’d ever figured that the River Hawks would leave Causeway Street as champions. “You see BC and BU win all the time. You didn’t see Lowell in here too much.”
On Saturday night, finally, UML was the last team standing after Arnold’s goal with less than a dozen minutes remaining had beaten Boston University, 1-0, in an enthralling finale at TD Garden, not only ending the Terriers’ season but also coach Jack Parker’s career after 40 distinguished years and more hardware than his alma mater can fit in one showcase.
“Ordinarily, we would have lost tonight and gone on to the next tournament,” said Parker, whose squad needed to win the title in order to make the 16-team NCAA field that will be announced Sunday night. “Not to be.”
Four years ago it was the River Hawks who’d had their sticks confiscated and it was BU that did it, also by a 1-0 verdict. “You always want to win when you play,” said coach Norm Bazin, who was a member of the 1994 varsity that lost by a goal to BU in the final. “But it was fitting that we played BU tonight.”
Win or lose, Lowell already had earned a return ticket to the national tournament based on its body of work from December onward. Last year at this time the River Hawks were sitting at home sweating out the PairWise rankings after blowing a home quarterfinal series to Providence. “That’s a feeling guys are always going to remember,” forward Matt Ferreira said then. “And a feeling we don’t want again.”
What they wanted was perpetuality, wrapping up an NCAA bid every year before they even got to the Garden. That’s what the Terriers had for decades, making the tournament a record 24 times during Parker’s tenure. This time was about role reversal. BU had to win both games at the Garden or stow its gear for the summer.
The Terriers had been all but interred on Friday night, down, 2-0, to Boston College’s three-time defending champs. But goalie Sean Maguire played Horatius-in-pads until his snipers found the target and BU plucked the Eagles, 6-3. For 48 minutes last night Maguire kept the River Hawks off the board until they managed a most unconventional goal off an odd-man rush with a pass pinging off a skate and the puck bouncing to Arnold, who wrapped it around the net and watched it go in off Maguire.
All it took was nine more minutes of defensive denial and standing sangfroid from freshman goalie Connor Hellebuyck while the Terriers, their cage empty, skittered around him. Then it was everyone over the dasher in triumph and captain Riley Wetmore hoisting the trophy aloft while his mates stretched to put their fingerprints on it. “It’s amazing just now,” Arnold declared.
It also was deserved. Lowell, which has lost only three times since Dec. 1 and once in its last 13 games, clearly was the league’s best team. What the River Hawks wanted, though, was the validation and respect that comes with winning on Garden ice, which either BC or BU had done for the previous eight years.
“It was very important,” acknowledged Bazin, who was the first coach to win the title in his inaugural championship game since BC’s Jerry York did it in 1998. “There’s a lot of skeptics out there and certainly a lot of detractors who thought we would come up short again.”
Even though UML had beaten BU in all three of their regular-season encounters, their record against the Terriers in the tournament was 1-8. “What’s a River Hawk?” chanted the BU fans. When BU was winning three national titles in the ’70s, Lowell was the Chiefs, competing in Division 2 and playing in the Codfish Bowl. When they moved up to the top tier in the ’80s, the Terriers used them as speed bags for a decade.
Lowell lost its first meeting by an 8-0 count, didn’t take a game from BU for three years and didn’t win another for eight more. Now, the River Hawks have won six of their last seven meetings and nobody’s asking for a recount. “Lowell Tech has come a long way to where they’re the dominating team in Hockey East,” observed Parker.
Two years ago, when the River Hawks were at the bottom of the league, they were everyone’s night off. A new coach, a serious commitment from the university, and a group of skilled young players literally turned the league upside-down and attached a hyphenated champion to the banner. “There’s a time when you have to say, why not Lowell?” Bazin said. “And that’s this year.”