LOWELL, Mass. -- Coming into the final weekend of February last year, the Hockey East standings were a complete logjam, with four teams tied for first place and two more within two points of the top spot. Fast-forward 12 months, and the Boston College Eagles (24-4-4; 16-1-2 Hockey East) -- the nation's top team -- are a runaway train, capturing the league's regular-season crown on Feb. 15 with 33 of a possible 36 points.
However, last year's champ, UMass Lowell (20-8-4; 10-5-3 HE), currently ranked No. 7 in the country, still figures to be a player in the Hockey East and national tournaments. On Saturday, the River Hawks served noticed that grit can sometimes match pure speed, and that BC won't get a hall pass to the league's tournament championship, as Lowell battled back from a 2-0 deficit to secure a point with a 2-2 tie.
"Whenever you get a point from the No. 1 team in the country, you should be fairly pleased," said Lowell coach Norm Bazin. "I thought we earned it. Certainly, we didn't get the start we wanted, but to come back the way we did, it felt like a win. Sometimes you tie and it feels like a loss. Today, it felt like a win at the very end."
On Senior Night, behind a 41-save performance by senior Doug Carr and a rediscovered forechecking game, the River Hawks salvaged the point with two third-period strikes. However, the tie enabled the Eagles to extend their unbeaten streak to 19 games (17-0-2). The streak equals the longest at BC under coach Jerry York, matching the feat achieved by the Eagles' 2012 national championship team.
"That was two of the better teams in the country going toe to toe for the weekend," said York. "I think both Norm and myself learned a lot about our clubs. This is the type of hockey you're going to see down the stretch -- fairly low-scoring, good goaltending, and (players) capitalizing on chances. I'm disappointed in the fact that we had a two-goal lead in the third period. But I can't fault (freshman goaltender) Thatcher (Demko). Both were kind of screen shots. I thought he played very well, as did Carr.
Smarting after a 3-0 whitewashing at the hands of the Eagles at BC on Friday, the River Hawks set out to protect their home ice, and their tenuous hold on second place in Hockey East, in a tough, physical game before a rambunctious, record-setting crowd of 7,649 that created a sea of blue at the Tsongas Center.
The opening period featured a number of quality scoring chances, but ended scoreless. Lowell sophomore Adam Chapie was particularly snake-bit, fanning on a shot at the doorstep at the 17-minute mark, and seconds later firing a point-blank bid from the slot wide right. At 19:30, Chapie was stationed at the right post, just to Demko's left, but couldn't convert a clean tip chance.
The goaltenders continued to shut the door in the middle frame, with both Carr and Demko submitting highlight-reel stops in the first 10 minutes.
BC broke the stalemate at 11:56, on a power-play strike by a familiar suspect. With Lowell's A.J. White serving two minutes for tripping, Kevin Hayes collected the puck at the right pint and flicked a shot on goal. The attempt caromed off of BC captain Patrick Brown, and fell directly to the nation's leading scorer, Johnny Gaudreau, who tapped it past a sprawling Carr for a 1-0 BC lead and his 29th goal of the season. It was Gaudreau's 28th consecutive game with a point.
BC's Ryan Fitzgerald doubled the lead, 2-0, on a nifty backhand tip at 12:52. Brown had sent the puck cross-ice to Isaac MacLeod. The senior defenseman walked to the top of the left circle, but despite having a clear shot, snapped a perfect pass to the tape of Fitzgerald's stick, and he calmly redirected it past Carr.
"After they got up 2-0, we knew as a team we had to buckle down and go the other way," said Carr. "We were a little flat in the second after they got the two quick ones."
Lowell ramped up the pressure at the start of the third, and senior Derek Arnold narrowly missed a chance to cut the lead in half, but his shot glanced off iron (the on-ice ruling was confirmed by video review). At 3:45, Lowell's Chris Maniccia had Demko at his mercy, but the puck popped over his stick and he never got a shot off.
The River Hawks finally got on the board at 6:42, capitalizing off a high-sticking call on BC's Chris Calnan. Josh Holmstrom shot wide from the slot, but then set up in front of Demko. The puck came to Chapie, and this time the sophomore from Michigan didn't miss, as he snapped a no-look shot that flew past Holmstrom's screen and over Demko's blocker into the top left corner to cut the BC lead to 2-1.
"We're fortunate that we got one on the power play, and I knew there would be a second coming very soon, because you've got 7,600 people in the stands, and that creates a lot of energy," said Bazin. "And I knew I'd see half a step more in a lot of people."
Carr agreed. "Once you score, you feel a whole different energy, and we tried to use that to our advantage," he said. "Once we got one, we knew another would come, and the crowd was behind us."
Lowell's White knotted the game at 9:09, when he corralled a loose puck at the left hashmarks and blistered a dart to the top right corner, over Demko's glove hand.
BC responded, storming the Lowell net in the last few minutes of regulation, but Carr was steadfast. With 2:30 left in overtime, BC's Fitzgerald had a superb chance to get the win, but again Carr was immense, flashing a leg pad to deny the Eagles freshman.
"There's not much difference (between the teams) over the weekend, I don't think," said York. "Tonight we had more chances to score. I think they had 41 saves. They're a tenacious club. A good solid team. That's why their record is so good and why they're ranked in the top 10 of the country.
"I would have liked to close it out, with a two-goal lead," he said. "But a tie is a tie. It's one point and you move on. Within the positive framework of our team, we were able to get three out of four points from what I think is a very good hockey team."
Bazin, meanwhile, said he was pleased with his team's resolve, and that he likes his club's chances should the two teams meet again in the Hockey East playoffs.
"If they're the barometer, I feel like we're close to being there," said Bazin, referring to BC. "However, I don't feel that we played a Lowell-style weekend. We probably played close to a game, instead of two games. So I'd like to see more consistency. But I do feel like the guys learned an awful lot today. They were able to persevere through some adversity, and get some pucks behind them, and that's what we failed to do (Friday) night.
"From that perspective, they learned an awful lot about themselves, and hopefully we get another chance to play them down the line."