WORCESTER, Mass. -- The NCAA hockey tournament is going exactly according to script for Boston College.
Each of BC's last four national title runs have been launched from Worcester, and the third-ranked Eagles (28-7-4) are headed back to the Frozen Four after slipping past the gritty fifth-ranked UMass Lowell River Hawks, 4-3, to capture the Northeast Regional at the DCU Center on Sunday.
This win, however, had a different flavor. Instead of BC's all-world line of Johnny Gaudreau, Bill Arnold and Kevin Hayes making the difference in crunch time, a pair of freshmen stepped up big in the third period to score the tying and winning goals.
Local product Ryan Fitzgerald erased a 3-2 BC deficit early in the final stanza, and Ian McCoshen, an import from Minnesota, put the Eagles up for good with 8:44 to go. But the game wasn't decided until Hayes dove to knock the puck out of his zone as the clock ran out, ending Lowell's season.
"Are we fortunate to come out of this with a trip to Philadelphia? Absolutely," BC coach Jerry York said. "It easily could have gone the other way."
In a match that pitted the nation's top offense against Lowell's top-ranked defense, the Eagles showed they could defend as well. York noted that his high-octane offense usually gets the lion's share of the credit for the team's success, but he was proud of how freshman goaltender Thatcher Demko and a defense featuring three freshmen weathered the Lowell storm.
"As long as we get one more goal than our opposition, I'm pretty happy with our offense," said York, who won his record 39th NCAA tournament game (39-20-1).
The Eagles are the lone Hockey East team left in the tournament, after five made the NCAA field of 16. The BC win sets up an intriguing Frozen Four match in Philadelphia against Union, the nation's No. 1 team and the ECAC Hockey squad that bounced the Eagles from the NCAAs last year by a 5-1 count.
"I definitely remember losing to them last year," said Arnold, a senior and BC alternate captain. "They came in and kind of drove us out of the building. So we're going to respect them as an opponent."
On Sunday, the River Hawks (26-11-4), despite playing a grueling late-night semifinal against Minnesota State on Saturday, appeared to have the same game plan. "I don't think fatigue became a huge factor," Lowell coach Norm Bazin said regarding the black-and-blue battle with the Mavericks. "You (have) to finish on your opportunities, and we had a couple of flurries where we just didn't finish."
Still, the River Hawks came out of the gates attacking, taking the early play to BC. A minute into the game, Eagles defender Isaac MacLeod made a great sliding block to break up a Lowell 2-on-1.
That got the Eagles' attention, and BC responded with a couple of scoring chances. But more than anything else, the serve-and-volley opening to the game brought the match to a nice boil, epitomized by matching roughing penalties to BC's Arnold and UML's Joe Pendenza.
BC got the all-important first goal at 12:57, with Gaudreau -- the regional's most valuable player -- again showing his preternatural predatory instincts. Jumping on a loose puck in the neutral zone, Gaudreau immediately launched a 3-on-1 rush down the left side, with Arnold drifting down the slot and Hayes filling the right lane. Rather than surrender the puck quickly, Gaudreau held it, forcing defenseman Zack Kamrass to make a decision. When Kamrass peeled off to protect against a pass, UML goalie Connor Hellebuyck dropped to take away a short-side shot. Gaudreau passed anyway, zipping the puck behind Kamrass to Hayes, who slammed it home for a 1-0 lead.
The goal made Lowell's task considerably more difficult, as the Eagles entered the game with a 20-2-2 mark when scoring first. If Lowell had reason to believe, it was that those two losses came earlier in March against Notre Dame, when the Fighting Irish knocked BC out of the Hockey East tournament. The River Hawks themselves had battled back from a 2-0 deficit against the Eagles in late February, salvaging a 2-2 tie.
"We know Boston College is a good team, and that they're probably going to score some goals," Lowell captain Josh Holmstrom said. "But we came right back at them a couple of times."
At 18:08, Lowell capitalized on a Fitzgerald boarding penalty to knot the game. Stationed at the blueline, UML's Michael Kapla took a pass from teammate Derek Arnold and fired a low wrister through traffic and Demko's legs for his third goal of the season, drawing the River Hawks even, 1-1.
Lowell had a golden opportunity to stretch its lead to open the second period, after BC's Arnold mugged UML's Joe Gambardella as he broke to the net. The River Hawks got close, when Demko lost Holmstom's deflection attempt, but the Eagles recovered and managed to kill off Arnold's penalty.
"It's the same old adage," Bazin said. "When you get an opportunity against a good team, you better finish it because it could come back and haunt you. And it certainly did."
At 5:11, Gaudreau unveiled another talent in his creative repertoire when he headed a deflected pass, much like a soccer player, on goal. But Hellebuyck, tight to the post, made the stop.
Gaudreau was at the center of things again when the Eagles took a 2-1 lead at 17:34. After wrong-footing one UML defender, Gaudreau brought the puck into the Lowell zone along the right wing. Kamrass blocked Gaudreau's shot, but Arnold fired the rebound past Hellebuyck's glove, off the post and into the UML net.
Lowell responded almost immediately on a strike by Holmstrom at 18:44. UML's Christian Folin flicked a shot from the right point that Scott Wilson appeared to tip before it began bouncing around the crease. The puck finally fell to Holmstrom's stick, and Lowell's captain snapped it past Demko's blocker to tie the game, 2-2.
The goal prompted a lengthy video review to make sure Wilson didn't tip Folin's shot with a high stick before Holmstrom buried his game-tying tally, but the goal stood.
Lowell took its first lead just 43 seconds into the third. Freshman Evan Campbell drove deep along the right wall and flicked a centering attempt that glanced off the skate of BC defender Scott Savage and past Demko for his ninth goal of the year.
This time, it was the Eagles who wasted no time answering. Just 21 seconds later, Fitzgerald took a pass from captain Patrick Brown, split the Lowell defense, pulled the puck onto his backhand and tucked it beneath Hellebuyck to knot the game, 3-3.
"That goal by Ryan Fitzgerald was unbelievable," Arnold said. "Just a really skilled goal."
It was BC's first goal of the Northeast Regional that wasn't scored by Gaudreau, Hayes or Arnold. It also cost Lowell the luxury of playing out front.
"I was hoping to play with the lead for a little while and see how we did that way, and make them earn it," Bazin said. "But they responded fairly well on their end, and that was it."
At 11:16, the Eagles reclaimed the lead on a heads-up play by a defensemen not known for his scoring. With the Lowell defense sagging and the puck in the right corner, McCoshen snuck down the left side, tapping his stick. BC defender Teddy Doherty dished a perfect pass to McCoshen, and the freshman cranked it underneath a diving Helleuyck for his fifth goal of the season and a 4-3 BC lead.
"I was thinking to shoot all the way, but he was screaming, and thankfully I passed it over to him and he made a nice shot," Doherty said. "I'm glad he's loud."
It was only the second time this season that Hellebuyck had surrendered four goals. The River Hawks continued to press, outshooting the Eagles for the game, 32-29, but Demko (29 saves) and the BC defense got stronger as the game went on.
"We had plenty of chances to get over the top, but their goaltender was equal to the task," Bazin said.
Now Demko, his freshmen classmates and the rest of the Boston College squad can make travel plans for Philadelphia.