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It's been a long, strange trip for tourney participants

New Hampshire Union Leader

March 29. 2013 10:31AM

MANCHESTER - They've come from the heartland, the mountains and even from down the highway. Three teams with three stories all with one goal: To spoil this weekend block party the University of New Hampshire is throwing at Verizon Wireless Arena.

It takes a whole season to truly define a body of work, and that's why UMass Lowell (26-10-2) is the top seed in this four-team NCAA Division I Northeast Regional tournament regional, UNH (19-11-7) is the No. 2 seed, Denver (20-13-5) is the third seed and Wisconsin (22-12-7) is seeded fourth.

The field could have looked entirely different in December, January or even a week ago as each team went through the ups and downs of a long season.

Here's a quick glance at how the River Hawks, Pioneers and Badgers ended up here with the Wildcats this weekend as they try to move on to the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh, Pa.

A short, strange trip

The distance between Lowell and Manchester covers a little more than 30 miles, but it must have seemed like a thousand miles to the UMass Lowell hockey team four months ago.

The Rivers Hawks were sitting at 4-7-1 overall and 2-6-1 in Hockey East on Dec. 1 after losing a weekend set to the University of New Hampshire by matching scores of 5-2. The dream season of a year ago, when Norm Bazin took over as head coach and led them to 24 wins - 19 more than the previous year - and their first bid to the NCAAs since 1996, was looking like a fluke.

UMass Lowell went 10-0-1 over its next 11 games to straighten out its season and then swept four games in the Hockey East tournament to win its first conference tournament in 29 years as a charter member. Such much for the fluke.

Now this newcomer on the national scene plays one of the storied programs in the sport, a Wisconsin team looking for its seventh national title.

If the River Hawks are to get out of Manchester and make it to Pittsburgh, freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck will need to continue to be among the nation's top netminders.

Hellebuyck was at the center of UMass Lowell's turnaround, posting back-to-back shutouts over Northeastern and Harvard right after the River Hawks hit their low point. He missed three weeks midway through the season, but returned to play the final 13 games as they went 12-1.

Hellebuyck was at his best in the Hockey East tournament, allowing four goals in four games and shutting out Boston University, 1-0, in the championship game to earn the tourney MVP award.

Peaks and valleys

The University of Denver has alternately looked like one of the best teams in college and one of the worst. It just depended on what week it was.

The Pioneers won eight of their first nine games, reaching as high as No. 2 in the polls. Then came an overtime loss at home to Yale, followed by a 6-4 loss to UNH the next night, followed by three more ties and three more losses. Denver dropped out of the Top 10 and it's been an up-and-down ride ever since.

The Pioneers still had a chance to get a high seed in the NCAAs with a good showing in the WCHA tournament, but promptly went out in the first round, losing two straight at home to Colorado College after taking the first game in the best-of-three series.

Denver can score: The Pioneers racked up 22 goals in their final five games. The Pioneers can also let them in: They allowed five or more goals nine times this season. Not surprisingly, they lost seven of those games.

The Pioneers have a marquee pair of homegrown talent with brothers Nick and Quentin Shore - two of seven players who hail from Colorado. They also have a couple of New Hampshire connections on the coaching staff. Assistant coach Dave Lassonde is a Rochester native and former UNH assistant, while volunteer assistant Matty Thomas comes from Bow.

Road, sweet road

The Wisconsin Badgers were a mediocre 10-8-3 at the Kohl Center this year after going winless in their first six games game on home ice. But they were 12-6-3 on the road and went into St. Paul, Minn., and beat Minnesota State, St. Cloud State and Colorado College on consecutive nights to win the WCHA tournament and make nothing less than a miraculous comeback from a 1-7-3 start.

The Badgers' ability to win on the road was essential since they managed to win back-to-back games at home only three times all year. Starting with a 3-2 win over Minnesota in the Hockey City Classic at Chicago's Soldier Field, the Badgers won 10 of their final 12 games, with seven coming on the road.

Tyler Barnes and tournament MVP Nic Kerdiles each scored four goals in the tournament as the Badgers outscored their opponents, 21-7, in five tournament games.

That their late push wasn't enough for the Badgers to avoid being a No. 4 seed certainly makes this regional maybe the toughest in the tourney.