BOSTON – Is UMass-Lowell Hockey East’s latest dynasty?
The D word shouldn’t be tossed around lightly lest it be trivialized. But the River Hawks’ 4-3 win over Boston College to secure their third Hockey East championship in five years provides ample evidence that they’ve earned entry into that exclusive club.
And if the three titles aren’t sufficient, then their five consecutive appearances in the title game surely qualifies. Only Maine’s seven-year run ending in 1993 tops Lowell’s.
“We take pride in who we are and what we do,” said Tournament Most Valuable Player C.J. Smith. “Everybody is willing to commit to the team and it really shows. We don’t care who we’re playing. We’re just going to go out there and play Lowell hockey.”
Smith scored just 1:06 into the game, and when the vaunted Lowell power play got an opportunity a minute later, it looked like the River Hawks could steamroll their way to a win the way they did one night earlier against Notre Dame.
Such was not the case, however, as the Eagles righted the ship, ended the period deadlocked, 2-2, and battled back from a 4-2 third-period deficit to close to within one on Ryan Fitzgerald’s pinball of a shot off the side of goaltender Tyler Wall’s pads with 2:45 remaining.
And when Fitzgerald’s next shot clanged off the crossbar, BC was left with only dreams of what might have been while Lowell could exult in another dream come true.
“The guys bent in the third period, but they certainly didn’t break,” said UML coach Norm Bazin, named Hockey East Coach of the Year two nights earlier for the third time in six years. “In the end, we got it done. We had to take out Notre Dame [in the semifinals] and Boston College, two incredible teams. I’m very proud of our school and I’m happy we can hang another banner.”
With that banner, Lowell joins the likes of Maine in the early nineties, Boston University in the mid-nineties, and BC in multiple stretches thereafter. All of them recorded three titles in four or five consecutive years.
“A culture of accountability comes first,” said Bazin. “These kids love to come to practice. It’s so great to work with good kids who want to get better. We don’t have a lot of finished products when they get here. We’d like more first- and second-rounders, but we don’t attract those guys for a lot of reasons.
“These are good, good kids who love to work. I can’t say enough about them. This year was a testament to the type of kids they are because I don’t think we started out as a very polished team, but we’re going to the NCAAs as one.”
Joe Gambardella, who scored the eventual game-winner, echoed the mantra of constant improvement.
“We just commit to the process,” he said. “Everyone comes to the rink every single day with the attitude that we want to get better. When you show up at the rink wanting to be there, those are the days you’ll get better. We choose to get either one percent better every day or one percent worse, and I think we’ve been going in the right direction since day one.”
While Lowell now rejoices and waits for the NCAA tournament, Boston College can only look ahead to next year, its season over, and console itself with a year of greatly exceeded expectations.
“With the turnover they had last summer and to have the season they’ve had is pretty special,” said Bazin.
Eagles coach Jerry York agreed.
“(I’m) very proud of what this club achieved,” he said. “It came down to Fitzy’s crossbar shot to send it into overtime. (We came) within a whisker of winning the Lamoriello trophy. I’m very proud of them. They did an outstanding job.”
When asked about Lowell’s ascendance into the Hockey East hierarchy, York complimented Bazin and the program, and then added one last goal for the River Hawks.
“Now they need to take the next step and win a national championship,” he said. “It’s certainly a possibility.”
When asked, Bazin specified a known recipe.
“There’s only one way to do that and it’s to win four games,” he said. “It’s the same feat we just accomplished.”
Four down. Four to go.