When Joseph Pendenza was a freshman at UMass-Lowell in 2010-11, victories were nearly impossible to come by. The River Hawks finished with just five, and the team went through a coaching change in the offseason.
Since Norm Bazin stepped behind the bench, the program has surged in Hockey East.
Pendenza and the rest of the senior class celebrated their second consecutive Hockey East tournament championship with a 4-0 shutout of No. 4 seed New Hampshire Saturday night at TD Garden. That followed a 4-0 beating of No. 8 seed Notre Dame Friday.
Sophomore goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (30 saves) earned his third straight tournament shutout, dating to last season’s 1-0 win over Boston University in the final. In the 30 years of the tournament, Hellebuyck is the only netminder to post back-to-back shutouts in the semifinals and final. He was the unanimous pick as the tournament’s most valuable player.
“It’s huge for the program,’’ said Pendenza, who had three assists Saturday and one assist Friday. “It’s tough to explain how it’s been right now and how it feels. After our freshman year, we had our doubts with what was going on. We won five games and we weren’t sure what was going to happen with a new coach coming in. The one common thing coming out of that was we never wanted to experience that again. We’ve been very fortunate to do something special here. One of our huge things is to leave a legacy, so hopefully the guys after me can continue moving the program forward.’’
The second-seeded River Hawks (25-10-4) had four goal scorers Friday, and on Saturday four other players provided the offense. That has been the goal all season, to score by committee. That way, the opposition doesn’t know from whom the offense will come.
They aren’t a team of superstars or high scorers, and they aren’t flashy. They are a lunch-bucket, team-first squad.
“We’re structured to have four lines that are all going to go at you,’’ said Pendenza. “It’s a common theme game to game that you never know who is going to be scoring the goals. It’s always usually somebody different. That’s very hard for teams to combat because they don’t know what line is going to be doing the scoring that night.’’
Bazin said that’s been the plan since he arrived.
“To have a great team at Lowell, you have to have multiple threats,’’ said Bazin. “We don’t have the 50- to 60-point guy but we have an awful lot of good hockey players. We feel if it can come from any line, it makes us a real threat. As you can see from these last two games, it can come from anywhere.’’
Lowell got rolling at 12:12 of the opening period when sophomore left wing A.J. White potted his seventh of the season.
Pendenza threw the puck at the net from the right boards. Junior goaltender Casey DeSmith (26 saves) got his stick on it but he couldn’t corral the puck and White rapped it in.
Senior right wing Josh Holmstrom made it a 2-0 game at 15:28 on a rebound shot. The River Hawks added a pair in the second. Junior right wing Terrence Wallin set up the tally with a pass from the right circle to freshman center Joe Gambardella in the slot. Gambardella beat DeSmith to the stick side and put Lowell in complete control.
Junior defenseman Jake Suter put the final nail in the Wildcats’ coffin with 1:17 remaining in the period with a shot from the right point that deflected off UNH freshman defenseman Dylan Maller and past DeSmith.
Pendenza had a chance at 3:46 of the third when he was awarded a penalty shot, but DeSmith snared his backhand bid with his glove.
The Wildcats (22-18-1) played their best period by far in the third and desperately tried to beat Hellebuyck. With the contest clearly decided, UNH coach Dick Umile made a classy decision by pulling DeSmith with 5:09 left in favor of senior Jeff Wyer, a native of Reading. Wyer had played just seven games this season and 14 in his career.
“I was very pleased with the way my team played tonight,’’ said Umile. “Things just didn’t happen for us. When we had our chances, Hellebuyck made saves when he had to.’’