Senior forward Jake Kamrass skates towards the puck in the second playoff game against Merrimack. (Matt Dwyer/Connector)
The end of the 2017-18 men’s hockey season came sooner than expected. UMass Lowell fell in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs to tenth-seeded Merrimack College.
“We’re not used to finishing this early, so it feels pretty raw right now,” said UMass Lowell head coach Norm Bazin.
It marked the second straight year that UMass Lowell had its season end in overtime. As Merrimack swarmed game-winning goal scorer senior forward Jace Hennig, the River Hawk faithful could not help but think of the grueling loss to Notre Dame in 2017 after initially beating them on the way to the Hockey East title.
Merrimack and UMass Lowell were perfectly matched; the overtime period was fraught with moments of heart-stopping play. Each shift was lit aflame with possibility, felt most acutely during the last shift of regulation, when junior forward Ryan Dmowski seemed prime to score a buzzer-beater that would elongate UMass Lowell’s season by at least one more game.
“We had enough pressure and the [Merrimack] goalie couldn’t see the puck… [we were] shooting from good angles. It certainly didn’t have eyes for us tonight,” said Bazin.
One more was all the River Hawks needed for the entire series. One more shift, one more goal, one more game to wake up and prove themselves. This team had won the 2017 Hockey East Championship, besting Boston College in a thrilling game of college hockey. A few moments of brilliance on Saturday night reminded spectators of that fact. But the last chance ultimately went to Merrimack.
Perhaps what was most stinging about this particular loss was that for a few glorious minutes, it seemed as though UMass Lowell could win it.
“Both of these games could have gone either way,” said Merrimack College head coach Mark Dennehy.
The River Hawks seemed to come alive after realizing that they were down 2-0. Needing to assert themselves in front of a home crowd, UMass Lowell began to claw their way into playoffs contention with more aggressive play. For much of the third period, UMass Lowell dominated puck possession and had thrilling scoring chance after scoring chance.
Sophomore defenseman Mattias Göransson’s goal at 8:06 of the second period thrilled the crowd and ignited a fire in the River Hawks. The hope was alive; flickering, because although UMass Lowell had cut the lead in half, they still needed two more goals to truly be more comfortable.
Junior forward and assistant captain Connor Wilson was not satisfied to let Merrimack keep their lead. At 8:31 of the third period he scored his eighth goal of the season off of a beautiful pass from freshman defenseman Anthony Baxter. Wilson stood unguarded off to the right of the Merrimack goaltender and slammed the goal home.
The River Hawks were not done, the goal appeared to say.
They even seemed to push past the defensive difficulties which have plagued them for much of the season. Merrimack was only able to get three shots on net in the third period and they were pretty much invisible for much of the twenty minutes.
Overtime was much the same. UMass Lowell dominated zone time and generated multiple scoring chances, each one closer to the last. By the time that the goal light flashed red and the Merrimack players swarmed on the ice to celebrate their win, UMass Lowell had 32 shots on net.
During that third period, Bazin said that he thought the game might just go their way, given the shift of momentum in their favor.
“We had several looks where we had shots from the point,” said Bazin.
Finding themselves facing the end of the road, the River Hawks found something that was not present in several of their preceding games: intensity. Not one offensive chance was overlooked, as they skated hard and were proactive in making the most of every shift.
Even if it were the last game of the season for the River Hawks, it was good for fans to be reminded of the quality of hockey that UMass Lowell plays.
Dennehy spoke about his immeasurable respect for Bazin, the UMass Lowell hockey program and the opportunity to play at the Tsongas Center, the home of the most recent Hockey East champions.
“They’ve been in the finals the last five years, defending champs. [Bazin] runs his program the right way. Class act,” he said.
The heartbreaking result was, like it or not, the perfect end to what Bazin referred to “a year of missed opportunities.” Lack of consistency plagued UMass Lowell all season long; the team could hardly get two wins in a row, especially on back-to-back nights.
“Every time we won a game we had to lose one the next night. It’s not the level of consistency you need to have if you’re going to be a good team in Hockey East,” said Bazin.
Merrimack College will go on to play the Boston College Eagles in the quarterfinals of the Hockey East playoffs as the UMass Lowell River Hawks come to terms with the hard loss.