LOWELL — It was destined to be a one-goal game.
UMass-Lowell defeated Vermont, 2-1, Sunday in the decisive finale of a best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series before 2,513 at Tsongas Center, earning a trip to TD Garden for the conference semifinals.
UMass-Lowell, the defending Hockey East tournament champion, will play Notre Dame Friday night at 5 p.m.
The second-seeded and eighth-ranked River Hawks (23-10-4) played seventh-seeded and 15th-ranked Vermont (20-14-3) five times in the last two weeks, with each game decided by a goal. After splitting a weekend series at the end of the regular season, UMass-Lowell won the first game of the quarterfinals and the Catamounts countered with an overtime win in Game 2. On Sunday, Vermont outshot the UMass-Lowell, 31-19, but couldn’t solve Connor Hellebuyck (30 saves) and the River Hawks defense, ranked second in the nation.
“They have six great defensemen,’’ said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon. “They are fantastic with their gaps, they are fantastic with their sticks, probably the best corps of defensemen we’ve played against this year. They swarm you in the offensive zone. They made some unbelievable plays coming out of their zone to break down our forecheck, that you never would have expected.
“It’s not just our lack of offensive ability at times, it’s their defensive prowess.”
The River Hawks, who learned just before the game that injuries would sideline regulars Adam Chapie and Joe Gambardella, improved to 16-0-3 when leading after the first period.
Their special teams scored twice in an energetic, if unconventional, first period.
UMass-Lowell collected its first goal while playing shorthanded. After breaking out of the defensive zone, Shayne Thompson carried the puck down the right wing and left a short backhand drop for Christian Folin, whose crackling one-timer from the right circle skimmed so quickly past the left post, it simply disappeared until it was visible skittering away behind the net. Play continued but at the next whistle, a minute later, a video review determined the puck had passed through the corner of the net and Folin was credited with his fifth goal of the season at 10:08.
The River Hawks bumped their lead to 2-0 at 15:43 with a power-play goal when Nick Luukko’s errant clearing pass hit A.J. White in the middle of the Vermont zone and the sophomore left wing let the puck drop to the ice and fired it past Brody Hoffman’s glove.
“Both teams knew each other very, very well,’’ said UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin. “The difference for us was we weren’t chasing the game for a good portion of it and when you’re not chasing the game, you have a little bit more energy.’’
Both teams showed signs of three-games-in-three days fatigue as the Catamounts took seven shots in the second and the River Hawks just five. UMass-Lowell took a too many men on the ice penalty at 17:38, and Vermont made the River Hawks pay in only eight seconds. Nick Bruneteau sent a shot from the left point toward a knot of players fighting for position in front of Hellebuyck, and Jake Fallon tipped it past the goalie at 17:46.
It was left to UMass-Lowell’s sophomore goalie to withstand Vermont’s third-period pressure as the Catamounts outshot the River Hawks, 13-4.
In his best effort, Hellebuyck slid across the goalmouth in time to disrupt Chris McCarthy’s shot at the left post with 11:47 to play.
“It was a game of inches for three straight games,’’ said Sneddon, who added he’ll keep his fingers crossed his team might still get an NCAA bid.
The River Hawks have the routines of last year’s squad, the first in school history to win the Hockey East tournament, to follow, but Bazin expects something different.
“The kids who had those experiences have benefitted from it but there’s a lot of younger guys in that [locker] room that weren’t here,’’ said Bazin. “It’s a different group dynamic, so I want to let them reinvent themselves for this playoff run.
“I do like the resiliency. I like the no-quit attitude we have. I like the fact that we can play physical when we have that type of game presented to us. So there’s a lot of little things that they’re still shaping what they’re going to be for the playoff run. This three-game series was an excellent series.’’