MANCHESTER, N.H. — Three times they’d been on the threshold of the Frozen Four, only to have the door slammed on their beaks. How many times could UMass-Lowell have a hockey team good enough to compete for a national championship and not get the chance?
Finally, on Saturday night in an old mill town not far from their own old mill town, the River Hawks got it done, blanking New Hampshire, 2-0, at the Verizon Wireless Arena to advance to the semifinals in Pittsburgh for the first time.
“It’s almost like a surreal experience for us,’’ mused coach Norm Bazin, whose soaring tri-colored varsity will face Yale, which was a most unlikely opponent just three days ago.
Three times the River Hawks had won a NCAA regional opener only to be busted in the final — by Minnesota in double overtime in 1994 when Bazin was a player, by Colorado College in 1996, and last year by Union. This time Lowell made it happen by smothering both Wisconsin and UNH as freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck stopped 59 of 60 shots.
“It’s tough,’’ acknowledged Wildcat coach Dick Umile, whose squad had hoped to reach the Frozen Four for the first time since 2003 but lost as a regional host for the third time in five years. “They don’t let you open it up.’’
New Hampshire had mastered the River Hawks in their three regular-season meetings, winning 5-2 at Durham and 3-0 and 5-2 at Lowell. But all of those encounters came before UML had its December revival after a 4-7-1 start and went 23-3-1 the rest of the way, winning both the Hockey East pennant and tournament.
“Credit to them,’’ saluted Umile. “They’ve been a great team.’’
The Wildcats, who began with a 11-1-2 run, cooled off in February, winning only two of their final 10 regular-season games and dropping their quarterfinal playoff series at Providence. And while the hosts’ 5-2 triumph over Denver on Friday had been invigorating, it also proved costly as Kevin Goumas and Grayson Downing, the top two centers, were injured in that game and in street clothes for the final.
“It changes things, but it’s a team,’’ said Umile, who had to rework three of his four lines. “Other guys step up.’’
So UNH went to a more deliberate defensive style and since Lowell creates its offense from its defense, that made for a stalemate that wasn’t broken until less than a half-minute remained in the second period, when sophomore wing Scott Wilson did the work of a couple of men to create a goal from sheer scrap after defenseman Chad Ruhwedel’s shot missed the mark.
After coming out from behind the UNH cage by himself, Wilson tried a backhanded bid and when goalie Casey DeSmith denied him, Wilson went to the forehand on the rebound and popped it in with 29.7 seconds to go.
“It was huge,’’ said captain Riley Wetmore. “When we play with a lead we’re a good team.’’
Indeed, the River Hawks were 18-2-1 when scoring first and 17-0-1 when leading going into the third period. One goal had been enough in the Hockey East final against Boston University and when Lowell went into lockdown mode as the clock ticked down, it seemed as if one might be sufficient again.
Just in case, though, Lowell got another off a UNH turnover in the UML end. Adam Chapie, the freshman wing who’d potted an empty-netter against Wisconsin, made it happen with a headlong dash down the left side, flipping a backhander from the bottom of the circle that zipped under DeSmith’s glove with just over six minutes to play.
“A big goal to add to a cushion,’’ said Bazin, who’d been unsettled by the idea of protecting a one-goal lead against a desperate opponent.
The Wildcats didn’t go down easily. With their cage empty for nearly the final three minutes, they came down snarling and nipping and penned the River Hawks into their end. But Hellebuyck was Drydenesque as his defenders scrambled and blocked shots ahead of him and the Wildcats were snuffed out.
For UNH, which missed last year’s tournament, being here wasn’t enough.
“It still [stinks],’’ said senior defenseman Connor Hardowa. “We’ve been here one too many times in this situation where we won the first game and then lost.’’ Now the River Hawks, who were 5-25-4 only two years ago, are going to a lofty place where none of their predecessors has ever been. “This team is starting to show people that they’re capable of something pretty special,’’ Bazin concluded.