By Mike Zhe
MANCHESTER, N.H. – They’re back within a step of the Frozen Four. And this time, all their friends are here to cheer them on.
Top-seeded UMass-Lowell took care of its business in the first round of the NCAA Northeast Regional on Friday, skating past Wisconsin, 6-1, at the Verizon Wireless Arena. The River Hawks (27-10-2) will play second-seeded New Hampshire or No. 3 Denver in the regional final here Saturday.
Leading scorer Joe Pendenza (Wilmington, Mass.), defenseman Christian Folin, Shayne Thompson, Derek Arnold (Foxboro, Mass.), Adam Chapie (empty net) and Ryan McGrath scored goals for Lowell, which got 31 saves from freshman goalie Connor Hellebuyck, including a first-period penalty shot when it was still a one-goal game.
It’s the second straight year Lowell is in a regional final under second-year coach Norm Bazin, after sitting out the NCAAs every year going back to 1996. Last year, in Bridgeport, Conn., it beat Miami in overtime (4-3) before losing to Union, 4-2.
“You know, we do have a lot of confidence right now,” said sophomore winger Scott Wilson. “But our coaches and our captains have really kept us level-headed and focused on the task at hand. (Captain Riley) Wetmore pulled us aside and said, ‘Enjoy it for five minutes. We have business tomorrow.’”
The 27 wins set a Division I program record for the River Hawks, who won the regular-season and tournament titles in Hockey East for the first time ever.
After killing off the remainder of a penalty to open the second period, Folin made it 2-0 at the 3:12 mark. He started a rush with a pass to Wilson on the left wing, then received it back in front and beat goalie Joel Rumpel with a wrister.
After another successful penalty kill later in the period, defenseman Jake Suter – a Wisconsin native – sent a pass ahead to Thompson, who skated in and scored with defenseman Joe Faust draped on him to make it 3-0.
“I thought it was a little bit atypical, the amount of scoring chances we had against us,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves. “We gave up more 2-on-1s than I’d seen in a while.”
The Badgers (22-13-7) upped the pressure in the third, drawing a couple penalties and finally cashing in when Brendan Woods scored on the power play with a little under 12 minutes left.
But after weathering a couple good bids from the rejuvenated Badgers, the Hawks turned a transition play into a 2-on-1, with Arnold finishing off a McGrath centering pass from the left wing to make it 4-1, and they added a couple late ones for the final score.
“I didn’t think it was a 6-1 game,” said Bazin. “I thought our skating got better as the game went along.”
UNH (19-11-7) and Denver (20-13-5) played in the late regional semifinal Friday night. Saturday’s winner earns a trip to the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh April 11-13.
The early game matched the two hottest teams in the regional. Lowell, since getting swept by UNH back in December, had gone 22-3-1, the best stretch in the nation. The Badgers came in on a 21-5-5 stretch.
Pendenza opened the scoring 7:11 in, taking a pass from linemate A.J. White along the left boards and snapping a wrister from the face-off dot that beat Rumpel (20 saves).
The Badgers had a terrific chance to tie the game late in the period when Jefferson Dahl was tipped during a shorthanded bid and awarded a penalty shot. But Hellebuyck took the wrister in his pads to preserve the lead.
“I took down the angle and then it was kind of waiting game,” he said. “I guess I outwaited him.”
At least one more game waits for Lowell on Saturday. This time, it would like to take a great season one step further.