MANCHESTER, N.H. — A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — specifically Madison in 1988 — these two hockey teams met in the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Wisconsin 7, UMass-Lowell 1, it was, on an ice sheet so chopped up that the participants might as well have been playing in the parking lot.
It took a quarter-century but UMass-Lowell exacted payback in full on Friday afternoon, racing past Wisconsin by a 6-1 count in the Northeast Regional opener at Verizon Wireless Arena to reach the doorstep of the Frozen Four for the fourth time since 1994.
“[Captain] Riley Wetmore pulled us aside and said, enjoy it for five minutes,” said wing Scott Wilson, whose teammates will play in Saturday night’s final against Hockey East rival New Hampshire — which won all three of their regular-season meetings — a 5-2 winner in Friday’s nightcap. “Because tomorrow we have to do business again.”
For anyone who remembers the Madison Mugging 25 years ago — and athletic director Dana Skinner was there to bear witness — this was an enormously satisfying reversal. Six players scored for the River Hawks, who popped in three goals in the final seven minutes, two in the last 48 seconds. And freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who made 31 saves, stopped a first-period penalty shot by Jefferson Dahl that kept things going in Lowell’s direction after Joseph Pendenza had drawn first blood at 7:11. “Definitely a big turning point,” Pendenza, whose colleagues were outshot, 11-4, in the opening frame, said of Hellebuyck’s heroics.
Still, there was no question which was the better sextet here. Lowell has been the best team in the country since Christmas, going 21-3-1 and losing only once since Feb. 3. Wisconsin, which won one of its first 11 games, had to take the WCHA tournament to get here as a No. 4 seed.
Once the River Hawks got going the Badgers simply couldn’t catch them, giving up killer odd-man rushes that Lowell deftly cashed. “It seemed like we almost were trying too hard,” said coach Wisconsin Mike Eaves, whose varsity was making its first appearance in the tournament since Boston College laid on a cover-your-eyes 5-0 beating in the 2010 championship game.
Lowell (27-10-2) simply was faster and defter, and whenever its attackers were given a couple of strides in open ice, they punished Wisconsin (22-13-7). Pendenza had an open shot from the left circle. “I put my head down and let one rip,” he said. After defenseman Christian Folin finished off a two-on-one with Wilson at 3:12 of the second and Shayne Thompson swooped in on a breakaway at 14:08, the Hawks were up, up, and away at 3-0.
For a few moments in the middle of the third period, after Nic Kerdiles potted a power-play tally and his mates just missed on a couple of chances, it seemed as if the Badgers might be able to claw their way back into it. Then, with just over six minutes to play, Lowell’s first-liners came in for the odd-man killer with Ryan McGrath feeding Derek Arnold at the top of the crease for a pretty conclusion. Two more, an empty-netter by Adam Chapie and a power-play breakaway by McGrath, were a blissful bonus.
“They played hard, they play a team and they know what it takes to win,” defenseman John Ramage observed after the Badgers had given up their most goals in the tournament since New Hampshire hung seven on them in 1998. “Obviously, look at their record. They are a hot team, too, They know how to win and they showed it in this game.”
The River Hawks have been showing it since they came out of their 4-7-1 swoon in December. “We’re fine,” coach Norm Bazin assured Skinner then.
Nobody in the land has been better coming into the tournament. Now the challenge is for the River Hawks finally to get to the place where they give out the one trophy that everyone wants. Wisconsin has won it six times, but the Badgers are going back to Madison without their sticks, just as Lowell came home without theirs 25 years ago. College hockey’s universe has changed since then and this year’s galaxy includes the likes of Quinnipiac and Canisius and Niagara and Union. And a certain hyphenated school from an old mill town that might yet be the brighest star of all.