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Sunday, March 10, 2013
UMass-Lowell emerges as HE's top seed

By Brion O'Connor

Massachusetts Lowell celebrates
UMass-Lowell broke into an exclusive club by winning the Hockey East regular season title.
When the smoke finally cleared on the final night of one of the craziest, most hotly contested regular seasons in the 29 years of Hockey East, history had been made.

For the first time, one of the league's perennial "top four" powers -- Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire and Maine -- wasn't wearing the crown when the final whistle blew. That honor went to the UMass-Lowell River Hawks, just two short years after the club finished dead last and missed the league playoffs altogether.

To capture the title, the River Hawks (22-10-2; 16-9-2 Hockey East) had to rebound from Friday's home loss to Providence and turn the tables on the Friars (15-12-7; 13-8-6) in Rhode Island, taking the rematch 4-1. Lowell got big games from Josh Holmstrom (game-winning goal, plus an assist) and Scott Wilson (goal, assist) to wrest the crown from defending champion and second-place finishers Boston College.

Still, the River Hawks have a surprisingly tough 1 vs. 8 matchup in the league quarterfinals, as Norm Bazin's troops will host Maine (11-17-8; 7-12-8) just as it appears to be rounding into form. Tim Whitehead's eighth-seeded squad has proven it can win big games on the road, not only by knocking UNH out of the home-ice derby with a win (4-3) and a tie (4-4 on Saturday) and ensuring that Massachusetts would miss the playoffs for the first time since 2002, but also by taking two from Boston College at Conte Forum in late January.

The Black Bears also beat UMass-Lowell at the Tsongas Center back on Nov. 11, and took the season series from the River Hawks, 2-1.

The key for the River Hawks will be the continued stellar play of freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (14-2-0) and its offense-by-committee (eight players with 18 or more points). Maine will have to hope its mercurial captain, Joey Diamond, is more of a leader (team-high 24 points on 14 goals and 10 assists) than a liability (he became the program's all-time leader in penalty minutes during the UNH series).

Second-seeded BC (20-10-4; 15-9-3), fresh off a three-point weekend in Burlington, Vt., will face the seventh-seeded Catamounts (11-17-6; 8-13-6) in its own barn starting Friday. Entering the weekend, the Eagles still had a shot at the league title, but Friday's 4-4 draw combined with Lowell's win on Saturday left BC a point short of the top spot.

Unlike last year, when the Eagles rode an 11-game winning streak into the league playoffs, this season's model finished with a less flashy 6-3-2 record over its last 11. However, Jerry York's team served notice that it won't surrender its league title easily, following Friday's tie with a 7-2 thumping of the Catamounts.

Vermont has been a Jekyll-and-Hyde unit of late, notching a big win against BU on March 2 (5-2 at Agganis Arena) and critical points with ties against UNH and BC. But Kevin Sneddon's squad has also lost to likes of Penn State in its first varsity season. Following a hard-fought tug-of-war stalemate against BC on Friday, the Catamounts were overwhelmed by the Eagles on Saturday, surrendering the first five goals en route to a 7-2 loss and seeing stalwart freshman netminder Brody Hoffman chased from the game.

BU (18-15-2; 15-10-2) made sure that it wouldn't miss out on home ice for the quarterfinals for the first time since 2005, as Jack Parker's Terriers swept their weekend set against Northeastern, 4-2 on Friday and 5-0 on Saturday, behind the superb goaltending of freshman Sean Maguire. The twin-killing allowed the Terriers to gain a measure of revenge against the last-place Huskies (9-21-4; 5-18-4), who beat BU twice earlier in the season, and grab the third seed based on having two more wins in league play than either UNH or Providence. But they needed a little help from UNH, who held a key tiebreaker against the Terriers (winning the season series, 2-1) but could only manage a single point in two games against Maine over the weekend.

As a result, the Terriers will host sixth-seed Merrimack (15-15-6; 13-11-3 HE), which has struggled down the stretch, going 2-5-1 since Valentine's Day. As recently as Feb. 26, the Warriors were only a point out of first place, but a pair of losses to UMass-Lowell and a regular season-ending defeat at the hands of UMass erased any hope of Merrimack finishing in the top four. The last time these teams met in the playoffs, the Terriers emerged victorious in an epic three-game quarterfinal series in 2010.

New Hampshire (18-9-7; 13-8-6) was the weekend's biggest loser. The Wildcats blew their chance to host the quarterfinals at the Whittemore Center, dropping three of a possible four points at home to archrival Maine. Though Eric Knodel's goal with less than four minutes left enabled the Wildcats to finish in a dead heat for third place with BU and Providence, UNH lost out on the tiebreakers. Since BU had more league wins (15, compared to 13 for the Wildcats), and Providence won the season series against UNH (2-0-1), Dick Umile's squad tumbled to fifth place in the standings.

And their consolation prize is a best-of-three set against the Friars. The series could turn on a goaltending duel between UNH sophomore Casey DeSmith and Providence freshman John Gillies, former teammates in the USHL who are now among the best netminders in Hockey East. Providence, as coach Nate Leaman has said, has been a solid bounce-back team all year and is playing with a maturity that belies a roster that features 10 freshmen.