MANCHESTER, N.H. — It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
UMass Lowell teams had posted a dominating 9-2-2 record against Notre Dame during its four years in Hockey East, including an absolute throttling in the league semifinal contest nine days earlier, 5-1.
That loss led Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson to conclude that night: “UMass Lowell is a great team and they certainly have our number. They have ever since we started playing them three or four years ago.”
A River Hawks trip to the Frozen Four, then, felt like a near foregone conclusion as they advanced to face the Irish in the Northeast Regional final on Sunday. Yes, you have to play the games, yada, yada, yada, and flukes do happen, but barring the oddest alignment of planets, Lowell was moving on to the Frozen Four. It was all but a done deal.
Instead, Notre Dame stood all that logic on its head, coming back to tie it in the third period, then winning in overtime, 3-2. Anders Bjork, who assisted on all three Irish goals, found Andrew Oglevie in the slot and the sophomore roofed it for the win.
The win was no fluke. The two teams battled tooth-and-nail all game long, neither side conceding a thing, much less a trip to the Frozen Four.
This wasn’t Notre Dame goaltender Cal Petersen standing on his head, single-handedly bailing out overmatched teammates. Going into overtime, the contest was dead even in almost every way, not just the 2-2 score, but also the territorial play, the natural ebbs and flows of a game notwithstanding.
Notre Dame struck first off a Lowell turnover, 11:49 into the contest, Bjork springing Cam Morrison for a breakaway. Tyler Wall stopped the initial shot, but Morrison knocked in the rebound.
The River Hawks tied it later in the first on Ryan Collins’s first goal of the year, and it stayed that way until midway through the third. At 11:38, John Edwardh deflected a shot into the top of the net, and visions of the Frozen Four danced in Lowell partisans’ heads.
Down 2-1, however, Notre Dame cranked up the pressure and got the tying goal from Morrison three minutes later to set up the dramatic overtime winner.
“This one stings,” Lowell coach Norm Bazin said. “I felt that the group inside that locker room was good enough to be the best team at the end of the year. [But] we find ourselves on the outside looking in. It’s a fine line between winning and losing this time of year.”
According to Jackson, the seeds that led to his team’s win were planted in the sobering loss to Lowell nine days earlier. For the first time all season, the Irish didn’t watch film clips, largely because he didn’t want Petersen to see that game.
Jackson wondered if the team that had been successful for weeks leading into its Hockey East semifinal against Lowell would show up again. Not until the Irish responded midway through their Northeast opener against Minnesota, coming back from a 2-0 deficit, was he sure.
“We started playing and my confidence went way up,” he said.
That sentiment extended into this game.
“I had the feeling that we were ready, the guys were dialed in and would do what they needed to do to be successful,” he said. “Lowell is the best team that we’ve played this year, [but] playing them two weeks ago helped us tonight.”
Bjork, chosen as the regional’s most outstanding player, seconded that emotion.
“That [loss to Lowell] was a bit of a wake-up call for us,” he said. “They took it to us. We realized how hard we have to come out each game, and how hard everyone needs to compete. Every guy on the team did that [tonight].
“Our season was on the line so we played desperate. We were dialed in. Every shift we took we were going to make count.”
In the end, every last shift did count, and now the Irish are headed to the Frozen Four.