It shaped up as a mismatch of the highest order.
UMass-Lowell planned to celebrate its greatest season of hockey ever in its opener at home in the Tsongas Center. To the rafters went the banners honoring the school’s first Hockey East regular-season championship, its first Hockey East tournament title and its first trip to the NCAA’s Frozen Four.
Ranked No. 1 in the land with a veteran team and an all-everything goaltender returning in net, the River Hawks figured to jump-start their next big season against Sacred Heart.
The Pioneers had no reason to celebrate the 2012-13 campaign. They struggled early and often, stumbled to a 2-30-4 record and desired only to put the past behind them as quickly as possible.
Based on that season and a roster featuring 13 freshmen, Sacred Heart came into the game at the opposite end of the spectrum from Lowell. The Pioneers were picked to finish last in Atlantic Hockey.
“Not that we focus on reading about anything like that, but we were a longshot, definitely a longshot to win,” said junior goalie Alex Vazzano (Trumbull, Conn.), a transfer from Vermont. “They were ranked number one in the country and we were last in our league. That’s why you have to play the games. They weren’t going to just show up and beat us.”
They certainly were not.
Sacred Heart junior forward Drew George, coming off a rough year himself, struck first for a power-play goal just 3:48 into the game.
Vazzano and the Pioneers kept Lowell off the scoreboard the rest of the opening period, and he stopped 16 shots in the second period alone. With one period to go, Sacred Heart led still, 1-0.
UMass-Lowell tied it four minutes and 24 seconds into the third period
“I’m sure everyone in the building felt, ‘Here they come,’ ” said Sacred Heart coach C.J. Marottolo (North Haven, Conn.).
Surely, the River Hawks now would take control of the game. Never happened. Junior forward Ben Lake won a key faceoff and set up George and he scored again, just 85 seconds after Lowell had tied it.
“For this young team to respond like that was a huge moment for our hockey program,” Marottolo said.
“It was unbelievable to answer in such a close time frame,” Vazzano said. “We had the lead, they tied it and we had the lead again. We corrected our mistake and just kept on going.”
Vazzano and the Pioneers kept on going right to the end and wrapped up a most-satisfying 2-1 triumph, their first over a Hockey East team.
“Everyone was so excited and there was a lot of yelling and screaming in the huddle after the game,” Vazzano said. “We got into the locker room and started playing our victory song. It was almost like you couldn’t believe it. But we knew we could beat anyone at that point, if we play the way we can.”
And that victory song?
“We’re trying to find the right one,” Vazzano said. “We’ve been kind of switching around with it.”
It’s a nice issue to have. They didn’t have to worry about one much last year.
One win, of course, does not a season make, but George, Vazzano, senior captains Neil Fachini and Chad Filteau, those dozen-plus freshmen and the rest hope to hear whatever the victory song ends up being a whole lot more this year.
After a 6-0 loss to Rensselaer, Sacred Heart knocked off Atlantic Hockey rival Bentley, 3-1.
That made two wins in the first three games.
Vazzano was outstanding to earn the two wins and then had a tough outing in a 7-1 loss at Rensselaer in game four of the season.
The goalie is back home after two years at Vermont. Trumbull is no more than four miles away, and he spent a season as a stick boy for the Pioneers when he was 10.
“It’s great,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to get another chance, and I’m trying to make the most of it.”
So far, so good.
Last year, Sacred Heart did not win its first game until the 29th game of the season, and its record was 0-26-2 at the time. The second win came two days later.
George and Vazzano have helped spur the early turnaround.
George had three goals and an assist in the first four games. He had 14 goals and nine assists as a freshman but slipped to 5-7-12 totals last year.
“He didn’t have the type of year we all envisioned for him last year,” Marottolo said. “He recommitted himself to getting into the gym and getting stronger and getting faster. He’s off to a great start, and we need to have him continue on that path.”
Vazzano had to sit out last year as a transfer but looked good in practice.
“He’s a competitor,” Marottolo said. “He’s a huge competitor. He competes for every puck in practice. I’m happy for him. We were encouraged by what we saw in practice last year, but he hadn’t played in a year and a half. You never know how much rust is really there.”
Last year was tough to watch from the sidelines. Tough to watch from anywhere, really.
“It’s hard to come every day and get after it and not get the results,” Marottolo said. “You look for small things to hang your hat on as coaches.”
The two late-season wins and a couple of late ties, too, were large things, and Marottolo loved how the team stuck together and kept battling until the end of the season and praised the leadership, then and now, for the approach.
“I’m proud of how they kept battling,” he said. “They kept fighting and at some point in their lives they’re going to reflect back on that whole time and lean on that experience to get through another tough time.”
Not that anyone enjoyed it, or wants to go through the same type of season.
“They didn’t like last year,” Marottolo said. “There’s competitive fiber in everybody, and you want to change it after something like that. You do everything you can to change it.”
They’ll keep working on that.
Photo: Freshman defenseman Mitch Nylen and redshirt sophomore goaltender Alex Vazzano (Trumbull, Conn.) are hoping their big upset of then-No. 1 UMass-Lowell to start the season was just a sign of things to come.