WORCESTER, Mass. -- Sunday's NCAA Northeast Regional final between Boston College and UMass Lowell will showcase Hockey East's top two teams, but their styles could not be more different. The second-seed River Hawks employed their trademark grinding, 200-foot game to edge the Minnesota State Mavericks 2-1 in the second game of the regional opening round at the DCU Center.
Earlier Saturday, the high-octane Boston College Eagles punched their ticket to Sunday's final with a convincing 6-2 win over the Denver Pioneers. The winner of Sunday's game can book its flight to the Frozen Four in Philadelphia.
"We started very, very quickly," said BC coach Jerry York of the win over Denver. "We got some terrific play out of Billy Arnold's line [which includes the team's top scorers Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes and Arnold]. They have been our mainstays through their careers, and I thought tonight they were really sharp, moved pucks well. But, just as importantly, [they] competed really hard coming back, and playing good defense."
The second game of the Northeast Regional provided a sharp contrast to the opener. While the Eagles turned their game into a Formula One race, the River Hawks (26-10-4) and Mavericks (26-14-1) resembled a quintessential "if you ain't rubbing, you ain't racing" NASCAR demolition derby, with both squads taking the body every chance they got.
"Defensively, they were hunting us down," said Mavericks captain Johnny McInnis. "They backcheck with a lot of pressure, so you've got to make quick decisions. And I think that's their game plan, to take time and space away."
It wasn't artistic hockey, but a hard-nosed battle of wills. Lowell may need a few ice packs and aspirin, but coach Norm Bazin said his squad will be ready Sunday.
"We do know our opponent, and they're a great team," said Bazin of Boston College.
The River Hawks went 0-1-1 against the Eagles this year, losing at BC 3-0 on Feb. 21, and coming back to garner a 2-2 tie in Lowell the next night.
Lowell and Minnesota State both came into the NCAAs with topflight goaltending, and neither UML's Connor Hellebuyck (35 saves) nor Maverick Cole Huggins (33 saves) disappointed. In the end, though, Hellebuyck, who came within 11 seconds of notching his third straight shutout (including the semifinals and finals of the Hockey East tournament), was the difference.
"It was a classic goalie battle," said Huggins. "He made a lot of great saves. There were a couple of posts, both ways, and that could have gone either way too. But he played out of his head."
Asked what it would take to beat Lowell when the River Hawks are playing on top of their game, Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said, "I think you've got to get to three [goals]."
"You’ve got to get to them early if you can," said Hastings. "Because as we've seen, once [Hellebuyck] gets settled, he's pretty confident."
After several near misses by Lowell to open the game, including a shot that caromed off the crossbar, the River Hawks broke through on a typical gritty play by alternate captain Joe Pendenza, the team's leading scorer, at 12:54. With Lowell's Ryan McGrath serving two minutes for charging, Pendenza blocked a point shot from Minnesota State's Matt Leitner, and then broke in clean on Huggins. The senior from Wilmington, Mass., shifted to his backhand and coolly slipped the puck between Huggins' legs for a short-handed tally and his 14th goal on the season.
In the middle stanza, both goaltenders stepped up their game. Huggins made a nice stop on Lowell's Adam Chapie in the opening minute, and UML's Hellebuyck matched him with a sprawling right pad stop on Chase Grant moments later. Hellebuyck again frustrated the junior from Oklahoma City at the 5-minute mark, flashing the left pad to deny Grant's point-blank bid from the slot.
"I thought he made some exceptional saves tonight," said Hastings.
Huggins and the Mavericks caught a break just past the 8-minute mark, when the on-ice referee lost sight of a loose puck in the crease and blew the play dead. At 9:50, Minnesota State's Dylan Margonari, steaming down the left side, cranked a shot that beat Hellebuyck clean, but clanked off the right post.
Still, the Mavericks kept inching closer. Another in-tight attempt by Minnesota State's Teddy Blueger hit a post and pinballed across the crease.
Huggins kept the Mavericks within striking distance with two superb saves less than 90 seconds apart, denying Scott Wilson and then absolutely robbing Evan Campbell to close out the second period.
UML's Chapie had two solid chances to stretch the lead at the start of the third period, but he fired his first bid wide left in the opening minute, and then was hooked during a breakaway bid at 3:13. During the ensuing power play, the goal light went off during a scrum at the Mavericks’ net, but video review upheld the on-ice officials' ruling of no goal.
At 18:30, UML's Derek Arnold hit the post, and had a second bid blocked by Zach Palmquist with Huggins out of position.
Finally, with Huggins pulled for the extra attacker, Lowell got a second goal with 40 seconds left. After a brief flurry in front of Hellebuyck, the puck squirted to Zack Kamrass, and the junior from Atlanta flung it 180 feet into the empty net for a 2-0 Lowell lead.
The River Hawks would need the insurance marker. Minnesota State made it interesting with just under 11 seconds left, when Zach Stephan spoiled Hellebuyck's shutout bid, burying a rebound from a McInnis shot off the back boards to cut the Lowell lead to 2-1, and ending Hellebuyck's shutout streak at just under 202 minutes.
Despite getting an offensive-zone faceoff with 2.2 seconds left, however, the Mavericks wouldn't get another shot on goal.
"I liked the way we bent, but we never broke," said Bazin.
Sunday, Hellebuyck will again need to be on his game, as Lowell faces the nation's most potent offense. At the opposite end of the ice, BC freshman Thatcher Demko will step between the pipes.
"I thought Thatcher did not play fairly up to his standards in the last series [losing to Notre Dame in the Hockey East quarterfinals]," said York. "I think it was really important to his confidence to have ... a good game in goal. He's still only 18 years old, so this is a big step."
None will be bigger than Sunday. In the regional final, goals may be few and far between, and the first one might be the most important either team scores this season. The Eagles are 20-2-2 when scoring first, while the River Hawks are 20-2-3. There's little doubt that both teams are keenly aware of those statistics.