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Wildcats blanked by Lowell in Hockey East final

Special to the Sunday News

March 22. 2014 9:58PM

BOSTON – In the wake of its semifinal win over Providence, a smiling Dick Umile spoke endearingly of his University of New Hampshire hockey team, which had grinded its way to 22 wins and the Hockey East championship game through a series of injuries, slumps and, eventually, a few tilts that turned into must-wins.

“This team here,” said the coach, “is a special team.”

At various points he praised the team’s leadership, its effort, its commitment, pointing toward a playoff run the saw the Wildcats eliminate Northeastern and Providence, a pair of national-tourney hopefuls. He said he enjoyed coaching this club, his 24th edition, and all of those qualities might’ve given it a chance to do something special if they could find a way to get into the NCAA tournament themselves.

But that opportunity will not be forthcoming.

Instead, UNH’s season is over after UMass-Lowell simultaneously dashed New Hampshire’s hopes of both a national bid and a Hockey East title with an impressive 4-0 triumph before 12,051 at TD Garden – the River Hawks repeat championship finishing the Wildcats’ season prior to selection Sunday for the second time in three years.

“I’m very pleased with the way my team played tonight,” Umile said. “You may not believe that with a 4-0 loss, but I thought they played well, moved the puck, and things just didn’t happen for us tonight.”

Despite its 22 wins, UNH began the night knowing the PairWise Rankings made clear that the ‘Cats needed to win their first league title in 11 years in order to extend their season, and they came out with an according sharpness. Through 10 minutes they arguably had the better of the play.

However, 12:12 into the action, Lowell took advantage of a UNH misplay to take the initial lead – and the game tilted instantly. It seemed an innocuous play, really, but goalie Casey DeSmith couldn’t cover the soft bouncer Joseph Pendenza floated into the crease, and A.J. White was there to bury the miscue.

Barely three minutes later DeSmith briefly appeared to redeem himself, making a sensational sprawling save on Pendenza after White forced a turnover in the UNH defensive zone, though the resulting rebound found the stick of Josh Holmstrom, who whipped it to the twine to put the River Hawks up 2-0.

And that, history said, was practically a death sentence for UNH’s season. Built around disciplined defense and elite goaltending, the River Hawks entered the tilt 17-0-3 when leading after a period – and, furthermore, at that point nobody had scored against Lowell goalie Connor Hellebuyck on the Garden ice in his last nine and a half periods.

“They’re a great defensive team,” said UNH captain Eric Knodel. “They play their systems; their defense blocks every shot. They do a great job making sure their goalie gets the easy saves.”

The climb facing the Wildcats was steep. And it got steeper in the second. Three minutes in, Joe Gambardella beat DeSmith from between the faceoff dots after joining as the trailer on a rush up the ice, then the lead ballooned to 4-0 with 77 seconds left in the middle stanza, when Jake Suter tipped home White’s shot during a Lowell power play.

By that point reality was setting in quickly, the only question seeming to be whether Hellebuyck would notch his second consecutive Hockey East final shutout (he did), his second straight tournament MVP award (he did, unanimously), and how long his Garden invincibility would last (it’s ongoing at 230 minutes, 1 second). There was some excitement in the third: Pendenza had a goal waved off for using a high stick; UNH’s Harry Quast pinged the crossbar; DeSmith denied Pendenza on a penalty shot; Wildcat Jay Camper had a golden chance blocked by a defenseman’s stick on the way to an open net; then senior Jeff Wyer took over for DeSmith with 5:09 left.

But any drama was momentary because the result – and UNH’s fate -- had long been decided. The Wildcats continued playing hard, and hung tough enough that at the end of the night there was hardly a discrepancy between the two sides in terms of shots on goal (35-30, UML), though they were skating the final shifts of a campaign was never short on challenges.

“It’s been a great couple of weeks,” Knodel said. “We always knew from the start of the year we had a great team. The kids in that locker room are unbelievable. We knew we could do something special – we hit a couple bumps in the middle of the season there – but we battled through it, tried to stay positive and keep going.”

On top of competing in their typically loaded league, the ‘Cats opened with nonconference games against Minnesota and Michigan. They traveled to face a ranked Rensselaer team, and also faced quality foes like Cornell and Union.

The hope was that such a challenging schedule would give UNH a boost in the RPI and PairWise rankings that helped the selection committee seed the national tournament, though the Wildcats never fully recovered from a 1-5-1 start. They did wind up 22-18-1, and that included winning six of eight games to earn a spot in Saturday’s final.

But ultimately that’s where things ended for the Wildcats, one win shy of doing something special.

“The difficult part is it’s a team with great chemistry. We wanted to keep going,” Umile said. “Not only were they winning, and playing hard, but we were enjoying it and having fun doing it. It’s tough for the season to end.”


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