Things were looking very dire indeed for the UMass Lowell River Hawks late in the third period on Friday.
They had entered that last frame up three goals on the higher-seeded Miami RedHawks, and seen that lead evaporate in less than 10 minutes, including two goals just 14 seconds apart, in a flurry of odd-man rushes and overwhelming determination from a team that had been to seven straight NCAA tournaments. Miami clearly knew what to do in situations like this.
However despite all of Miami's experience -- it has made the NCAA tournament seven straight years, while Lowell was making its first since 1996 -- it ended up that the River Hawks, who brought a very vocal fan section down Route 95, won out 4-3, though it did take overtime. Captain Riley Wetmore scored his second of the night to ice the game only 2:13 into the extra period.
The final few minutes were, as you might imagine, not without their drama.
Much of that was provided by freshman Jake Suter (Yes, Gary's son), one of Lowell's steadiest own-zone defensemen all season and a consummate shot-blocker, who was called very deservingly for a five-minute checking from behind penalty with 3:35 remaining in regulation.
A five-minute power play with less than that remaining in the third period against a big, mean, skillful team was bad news, and Lowell turned, as it did all season, to sophomore goaltender Doug Carr.
Carr is, like his teammates, something of an amazing turnaround story. As a freshman last year, Carr suffered mightily behind a porous defense (3.63/.896) and rarely received much run support from a River Hawk squad that won just five games all season. But this season he was one of the best goalies in the nation, winning 22 games slashing his stats to 2.10 and .929.
Under big-time pressure against one of the country's premier programs, Carr was immense, and quite literally saved Lowell's season by kicking out his left pad to clear off a sure-thing winner from Reilly Smith, who didn't have a great game but scored 28 for the RedHawks and led the nation in game-winners this season. And in the final desperate seconds of regulation, the only thing Carr didn't seem to do was literally stand on his head. Overtime awaited.
Of course, to get to that point, Lowell obviously needed to score three goals of its own. It did so with a dominant opening 40 minutes. Josh Holmstrom struck first for the underdogs with a power play goal just 1:25 into the game, though that was subject to a lengthy review because the puck seemed to have been played with a high stick. The goal stood, but Lowell's next strike, at 4:38, did not. Though it was originally called a goal on the ice, the replay shod Joe Pendenza, who cut from the wing below the circles and put the puck on net, bumped Miami netminder Connor Knapp, who seemed as befuddled as the rest of this team that Lowell was posing this kind of problem.
The problems persisted. Late in the first, junior Colin Wright capitalized on a dreadful giveaway from Miami superfrosh Austin Czarnik and scored on a shorthanded breakaway for his fourth goal of the season. The first period ended 2-0 Lowell and no one was quite sure what to make of it.
Lowell's junior captain, Riley Wetmore, extended the lead to three on an odd-man rush with senior David Vallorani just 2:21 into the period. This was notable not just because it gave Lowell a seemingly-insurmountable lead (which proved not to be so) but also because Wetmore had been downright awful in his previous two games.
He had a good excuse, though. At some point in Lowell's second of three games against Providence in the Hockey East quarterfinals, Wetmore injured his right hand, and though he played the next night in a 1-0 loss, Lowell coach Norm Bazin later admitted he shouldn't have. And in this game, Wetmore played with a cast on that bad hand, the low one on his stick.
But as much as Lowell stuck very well to its game plan in the first two periods, it went off the rails pretty quickly in the third, and things fell to Carr to pick up the pieces. Tough he allowed three goals on Miami's 18 shots in the period, it could have been a lot worse than that. He ended regulation, and eventually the game, with 30 saves, and he got a boatload of help from the team in front of him. Lowell delights in blocking shots the same way others delight in taking them: they blocked 28 in the game, including a team-leading six by Hockey East second-team defenseman Chad Ruhwedel. Miami, by comparison, blocked just eight for Knapp, who made 26 saves in the loss.
Carr was the reason Lowell got the Bridgeport, let alone overtime. But it was Wetmore -- who wrested the team lead in scoring from rookie and Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Scott Wilson tonight and ran his total to 14-25-39 in 37 games -- who got the team one win away from a trip to Tampa for the Frozen Four.
Wetmore broke into the zone with David Vallorani and Derek Arnold. Arnold put a puck on net, and Wetmore followed, went across the top of the crease and chipped it over a sprawled Knapp's pad at 2:13 of the overtime period to send the Lowell fan section into paroxysms of joy.
Of course, they reviewed that Lowell goal as well, and a Miami shot that hit the crossbar behind Carr earlier in overtime. Both calls on the ice stood up.
UMass Lowell, a team that just last season was one of the worst in the country by any standard, is now at least one of its eight best.
The other game in Bridgeport's East Regional, third-seeded Union cobbled together a convincing enough 3-1 win over No. 15 Michigan State by doing what it has done all season: choking the life out of its opponents.
The Spartans put just 21 shots on goal, and never once managed more than eight in a single period. That's a pretty good recipe for success, and sure does help to explain why goaltender Troy Grosenik has a GAA that looks more like the cost of a bottle of soda and a save percentage close the US/Canadian dollar exchange rate. I mean, 1.63/.937? That's obscene.
Jeremy Welsh led the way offensively for the Dutchmen with a goal and an assist, and will apparently draw significant interest from NHL teams when Union's season ends. John Buccigross, who called the game, reported that Peter Chiarelli, Stan Bowman and more were in the building to see him play.
However, they're gonna have to wait at least one more day to approach him. Union's season isn't over yet.
1. Rodger Craig, Cornell forward
Craig didn't play a lot this season. Just 15 games, in fact. And in those games, he had but one goal to his name. Didn't matter much in overtime, though. Craig's goal 3:35 into OT dragged the 13th-seeded Big Red past No. 2 Michigan in what was a rather dull game with a spectacular finish. Cornell jumped out to a 1-0 lead just 70 seconds into the game, but Cornell scraped back to take a lead midway through the second and promptly tried to slow the game to a crawl.
And for a PK that was 48th in the nation this season, the Cornell D brought some serious heat tonight and stomped Michigan's worse power play, holding the Wolverines 0-for-7. Nonetheless, Kevin Lynch tied the game with 4:01 left in regulation, as both teams slogged their way to six shots in the third.
Craig's game-winner earned Andy Iles the win for a game in which he made 31 saves.
2. Simon Denis, Ferris State defenseman
Denis, like Craig, hasn't had a huge offensive season, and has been in and out of his team's lineup. Though he compiled 12 assists in the first 26 games of his college career, he didn't have a goal to his name. Until tonight.
Denis' first collegiate goal came 2:54 into the third period, extended his team's lead to two against a terribly banged-up Denver side, and stood up as the eventual game-winner in a 2-1 victory. Denver's Sam Brittain was the hard-luck loser, allowing two goals on 34 shots, while counterpart Tyler Nelson stopped 25.
3. Doug Carr, UMass Lowell goaltender
Again, enough cannot be said about the performance he turned in to save Lowell when things went badly. Making 30 saves against Miami is one thing, but doing it by almost completely silencing the RedHawks' top-flight Hobey Baker finalist Reilly Smith, who spent the night in Chad Ruhwedel's pocket, and his sensational linemates, Austin Czarnik and Jimmy Mullen, is really quite something.
(Author's note: Yes, I went to Lowell and yes, I wrote about Lowell but I swear to you that I wanted to write about anything but that game. They just put a gun to my head. Sorry.)
(Well, not that sorry.)