WORCESTER — Team Scrooge had starved the guys from Mankato into submission. UMass-Lowell’s hockey team was up, 2-0, on a shorthander and an empty-netter, on Minnesota State with 14 seconds to play Saturday night at the DCU Center and ready to hit the showers and the sack before Sunday afternoon’s rematch with Boston College.
Connor Hellebuyck was working on his third consecutive postseason shutout and then the proceedings went haywire. A roughing penalty on Terrence Wallin. A 6-on-4 goal by Zach Stepan with 10 seconds to play. A faceoff in the UML end, with white jerseys scrambling to knock the puck away. And, finally, advancement.
“We knew we didn’t have another game if we lose,” said Hellebuyck (35 saves) after he’d backstopped his fellow River Hawks to a 2-1 triumph before 6,522 witnesses.
Now they have a tougher one against an Eagle varsity that clawed Denver by a 6-2 count in the earlier game after having enough time off that they could have flown to Sochi and sunned themselves by the Black Sea between workouts at the empty Olympic arena.
“They’re regular-season champions for a reason,” observed UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin, whose squad dropped and drew its two meetings with BC. “It just so happens we’re playoff champions. Should be a good matchup.”
The River Hawks had to earn it with 60 minutes of grit and diligence against a Minnesota State bunch that arrived with a 13-game unbeaten streak and the WCHA tournament crown and was determined to make up for last year’s 4-0 loss to Miami in its regional opener.
It was the first time the schools had met in the postseason since they played in the Division 2 semifinals in 1981 when they were the University of Lowell and Mankato State. They’re big-boy programs now and but for a bounce of a puck in overtime last year the River Hawks might have been playing for the national title. If they can throttle the Eagles — admittedly a tall order — they still have the stuff to do it.
Nobody is better at making a banquet out of one goal. Until the final 10 seconds on Saturday it appeared that Joe Pendenza’s man-down tally on a breakaway after 12:54 would be sufficient. When Maverick point man Matt Leitner had problems handling the puck, Pendenza swooped in and dispossessed him.
“We practice getting a long stick on the D-man,” said Pendenza, who dashed in alone on freshman tender Cole Huggins (33 saves) and slipped the puck between his legs. “I faked the goalie one way and put it in the five-hole.”
With Hellebuyck standing firm, that was enough to live on. When Zack Kamrass launched the empty-netter from his own faceoff circle with 40 seconds to play, that figured to be more than enough. But Minnesota State (26-14-1) wasn’t giving up its sticks that easily. “We play the full 60,” said Stepan, “and see where we come out at the end of the day.”
When Wallin went to the box at 19:46, the Mavericks had one final shot. Coach Mike Hastings pulled Huggins and Stepan quickly scored on a rebound off Johnny McInnis’s shot.
Why couldn’t the guys from Mankato get it to overtime. “This is a crazy game,” said Hastings. “Yeah, I thought there was a chance.”
But the faceoff didn’t go their way and the season ended with the Lowellians moving on. “We didn’t give up,” said McInnis, who began playing the game in Quincy and suited up for Plymouth South. “We have no regrets coming out of here. But it is very frustrating. I can tell you that.”
The River Hawks (26-10-4) had the season end abruptly on them in Pittsburgh last time, then had to watch the folks that beat them (Yale) win the title. Just getting back to the Frozen Four will take a mighty effort, but they’d love to get another dance with destiny in Philadelphia — and earn another hat along the way.John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.