The race for the Hockey East title is coming down to the wire, and the wire is stretched pretty thin along Commonwealth Avenue. The top four teams are matched up in two-game series on this final weekend of the regular season and Boston College, in first place in Hockey East, hosted fourth-place UMass Lowell on Thursday in the first game of the decisive weekend.
Lowell had won five games in a row, outscoring its opponents collectively, 26-12, while BC hadn’t won in its last five games (0-3-2).
Lowell got past BC, too, taking a 4-1 victory at Conte Forum with a three-goal third period surge, led by Joe Gambardella, who had a pair of goals and an assist.
At 29 points, 14th-ranked BC (18-13-4, 13-5-3 Hockey East) now has a 2-point lead on BU, which is taking on Notre Dame this weekend, and No. 5 Lowell (21-9-3, 13-7-1 Hockey East). The 13th-ranked Irish are 3 points back at 26. No. 10 Providence (23) and No. 15 Vermont (22) are chasing. A victory Thursday would have given the Eagles at least a share of the Hockey East title.
BC can fall as far as third. Lowell can finish from first to fifth. The standings won’t be final until the last buzzer sounds Saturday night.
BC coach Jerry York, disappointed his team couldn’t muster more offense, looked ahead to Friday’s rematch at Tsongas Arena.
“We put ourselves in a situation where we can win a trophy the last week of the season,’’ he said. “Now we’ve got to close it.”
BC took 29 shots in the game, and only collected on one.
“Clearly, we have to score some goals,’’ said York, whose team has averaged 3.24 goals per game. “We’ve got to get shots on the net in traffic, we’ve got to have some rebounds, screens in front, some more bodies in the Grade A area. We’re holding on to our sticks too tight right now.”
In the scoreless first period, neither team possessed the puck consistently. While BC had nine shots (and 19 shot attempts) and Lowell 10, (25 attempts), most shots were blocked or deflected by defenders’ sticks. Lowell’s Dylan Zink had the best look, an open lane from the left circle at 18:17 of the period, but he did not get good wood on the shot and BC’s Joe Woll got a glove on it.
“We got better as the game went on,’’ said Lowell coach Norm Bazin.
Lowell started the second period on the power play, where the River Hawks were 25 for 67 (37 percent) in the previous 17 games. Lowell’s 28.6 percent success rate is second best in the nation. But it was not until the River Hawks’ third try with the man advantage that they broke through. After a long scramble to get control of the puck in the zone in the face of a tenacious BC penalty kill, Lowell finally set up around the perimeter, flinging the puck point to point to point. Chris Forney found the opening, firing a shot from the center point that knocked off Woll’s glove into the net at 17:14.
Only 25 seconds into the third, BC tied the game, when Austin Cangelosi popped in Matt Gaudreau’s rebound at the edge of the crease for his 17th goal of the season. Lowell regained the lead at 3:34 on a quick play, C.J. Smith passing the puck out front from behind the goal to an unchecked Gambardella, who picked his spot for his 16th of the year.
Smith bumped the lead to two at 13:15, finishing off a crisp passing sequence from linemates John Edwardh and Gambardella to score his 18th from the left side.
“We just kind of know where each other’s going to be,’’ said Gambardella.
Gambardella put the exclamation point on Lowell’s victory with an unassisted breakaway goal, shaking off a defender’s stick to rush in for a backhand shot, then roofing the rebound at 16:31.
“Lowell plays for trophies, too, not just BC,’’ said Bazin. “We’re very open about that.
“More importantly, we want to be playing good hockey going into the tournament; it’s not a switch you can turn on and off.”
The Eagles are chasing more than the conference title. BC is sitting on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. Before the game, BC was tied for 17th in the PairWise rankings, a formula which mimics the NCAA Tournament selections. It’s a 16-team field: six automatics for conference tournament winners, and 10 at-large bids. If it doesn’t improve its standing in the final two games, BC will have to win the conference tournament to get an invitation to the NCAA party.