LOWELL, Mass. — One of hockey’s oldest maxims is that playoff hockey comes down to goaltending and special teams.
On this night, both teams had the goaltending, but only Massachusetts-Lowell had the special teams. On the strength of two power-play goals, Lowell topped Boston University 3-2, taking the first game in their best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series.
The River Hawks went two-for-four on the man advantage, displaying especially crisp puck movement on both goals, while stopping both BU man advantages.
On the first strike, Lowell moved the puck around with one-touch passes until C.J. Smith fed Joe Gambardella in front where he tucked it around Sean Maguire. That goal tied the game, 1-1.
The second power-play goal proved the game-winner. Once again Smith provided the setup, his third assist of the game, finding Adam Chapie with a cross-ice pass, alone on the far post.
“Sometimes your power play clicks and sometimes it doesn’t,” UML coach Norm Bazin said. “I thought it struggled two weeks ago [when we last played], but it got better this weekend.
“You always like results, but the puck movement for a couple of those power plays was pretty strong. When you get movement, lanes open up. Fortunately for us, we were able to execute a couple times.”
Not surprisingly, BU coach David Quinn faulted his own team’s special teams.
“Our penalty kill let us down,” he said. “It’s going to have to get better tomorrow night if we’re going to have a chance to extend the series.
“[The game-winner] was blown coverage. You can’t allow a cross-ice pass like that to a guy standing all alone on the backdoor. We had a lot of puck-watching and weren’t alert. On both their [power-play] goals, we blew our responsibility.”
The quarterfinal series between the fourth-seeded River Hawks and fifth-seeded BU had promised to be a tight one. The two rivals finished with the exact same league record and split their games in head-to-head action. Lowell earned home ice based on tiebreaker, and thereby held the advantage over a BU squad that had gone a lackluster 6-7-2 on the road.
Nonetheless, it was BU that took a 1-0 lead in the second period on a Jakob Forsbacka Karl goal. The first-line, freshman center walked out from the left corner and beat Kevin Boyle, who finished with 33 saves, short side.
After Gambardella’s power-play goal evened the score, the two teams headed into the third period tied, 1-1. At 11:35, Michael Louria cut into the slot and moving left-to-right, shot back against the grain, possibly hitting a stick before it beat Maguire blocker side low.
Chapie then added what appeared to be the clinching second power-play goal, but just 23 seconds later, BU’s Matt Grzelcyk shot through traffic and it deflected in to slice the margin to 3-2.
The River Hawks had to weather the storm after Maguire was pulled with 1:39 remaining to seal the win.
With the victory, Lowell may have wrapped up an NCAA tournament berth, moving up from 12th in the PairWise Rankings, which approximate the NCAA’s selection criteria, to a tie for 10th. Boston University appears to remain safe at No. 8.
The immediate focus, however, remains on the Hockey East tournament, which BU won last year and Lowell the two seasons before that.
To come back against the River Hawks, Quinn noted his team had to play significantly better, but expressed confidence that it would do so.
“We’ve been pretty good [at coming back from losses],” he said. “It’s been a resilient group. We’re going to have to be very resilient tomorrow night, that’s for sure.
“But I liked a lot of the things we did tonight. We’re just going to need to clean up the penalty kill and few other areas to create offense.
“They’re a tough team to create offense off of… and we slowed down to make plays instead of attacking with speed. We’ve got to go to the net more consistently.”
The two teams face off at 7 p.m. on Saturday and, if necessary, at 4 p.m. on Sunday.