March 23, 2014

In final, River Hawks show they're a tournament team

By Andrew Merritt

With four different players scoring the goals, UMass-Lowell won its second-straight Hockey East title Saturday night, beating New Hampshire 4-0. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

BOSTON – The names are not the ones everyone talks about.

Hellebuyck. Wilson. Pendenza. White. Folin.

UMass-Lowell's roster is full of players who don't have the cachet and name recognition of, say, a Johnny Gaudreau, a Kevin Hayes, or a Shayne Gostisbehere (though one could argue people only know the latter because, well, his name is Gostisbehere). The River Hawks, in other words, don't have a superstar, at least not on the offensive side of things.

Pendenza, a Wilmington, Mass., native and UML's leading scorer, has 29 points. That's 40 points fewer than Gaudreau has for Boston College this year. Put another way, if Gaudreau were on the Lowell roster, and hadn't scored any goals at all this year, he would still lead the River Hawks by virtue of his 37 assists.

But on Saturday night, Gaudreau was at home, getting ready to find out where his Eagles will play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, while Pendenza and his River Hawk brethren were busy winning their second straight Hockey East title via a dominating 4-0 victory over New Hampshire.

It's the first time in more than a decade that a team other than BC has won back-to-back league titles.

Hellebuyck was the star of the show, again, turning in a 30-save shutout to become the first goaltender in league history to post back-to-back shutouts in the semifinal and final rounds. It's also the first time a goaltender has shut out the opposition in back-to-back title games, with Hellebuyck's performance matching the 36-save blanking he put on Boston University in last year's title game.

Hellebuyck's performance in the league playoffs, during which he posted a .960 save percentage and 1.18 goals against average, earned him the unanimous vote as Tournament MVP, making him the first player to win the award two years in a row.

So, yes, Connor Hellebuyck is a superstar. But goaltenders tend to stand out anyway. When you get away from the River Hawk net, you start to find that this is a championship team built on depth and balance – not to mention a defense that rarely allows so much as a greased BB to get past it.

"I think to have a great team at Lowell, you have to have multiple threats," said coach Norm Bazin, who has taken his team to back-to-back titles just three years after being hired. "We don't have the 50-60-point guy, but we have an awful lot of good hockey players, and we feel if it can come from any line, it makes us a real threat.

"As you've seen from these last two games, it can come from anywhere."

Indeed, the River Hawks scored eight goals in their two games at the Garden, and they came off the sticks of eight different players. Saturday night, it was A.J. White with the first goal (and game-winner) and then Josh Holmstrom in the first period, and Joe Gambardella and Jake Suter in the second.

To belabor the point of Lowell's depth: Gambardella, a freshman, didn't even play in Friday's semifinal win over Notre Dame. But Bazin and his staff knew they could slot him into the third-line center spot, which was held by freshman Chris Maniccia against the Irish, and they wouldn't miss a step.

"We're structured that we have four lines that are always going to go at you," said Pendenza, who assisted on White, Holmstrom and Suter's goals. "You never know who's going to be scoring the goals. I think it's very hard for teams to combat, because they don't know who's going to do the scoring that night.

"It's all four lines that can get the job done, and we just keep going and going, and soon enough the puck's going to go in, you just never know who it's going to be."

That inevitable attack also allowed the River Hawks to play their signature lock-down defense, and when Holmstrom made it 2-0 with 4:32 to go in the first period, it was already clear that Lowell was fully in control.

That didn't mean the River Hawks went on cruise control, however. The elite defense they played requires strict attention to detail and a commitment that borders on obsession.

"They're a great defensive team" said UNH senior Eric Knodel. "They play their systems unbelievably well. Even if we got it three quarters of the way there, they'd block the shot."

That pretty aptly describes the final 40 minutes of the game - UNH gets the puck, tries to get to the Lowell net, and a player in white would turn it aside. Just as often as not, it was Hellebuyck, but when the record-breaking netminder did need help, he had it.

With 13:30 to go in the game, UNH's Jay Camper was the recipient of a tape-to-tape crossing pass, with Hellebuyck out of position after making an initial save. Seemingly all Camper had to do was not fall down, and he'd have an easy goal to cut the Lowell lead to 4-1.

But defenseman Dylan Zink, a freshman on the third pairing with Suter, came to the rescue, going down to one knee as he reached out his stick and put it in the way of Camper's shot.

Even if Zink didn't make the play, the River Hawks were probably en route to victory. But the game wasn't over, so the job wasn't done.

"That's a strong indicator that the team has heart," Hellebuyck said. "We broke down a little bit, and I was forced to go to the left side. I always trust them back there, as much as they trust me to get the first shot. When he put it back there, I knew. I knew somebody was going to be there. The fact that it was Zink – hats off to him."

Hellebuyck knew someone would be there to keep the puck out of the net. And time and time again this season, the River Hawks have known that on the other end, someone would be there to put it in. Even if you don't know his name yet.

Twitter: @A_Merritt