PITTSBURGH - The lopsided shot total was more appropriate for a non-conference game in December, not a national semifinal. Though the final score was a 3-2 overtime win for Yale, it was a one-sided affair, with the Bulldogs outshooting UMass-Lowell 47-18 and 23-3 in the last 26:59 of the game.
"The magic wasn't there tonight," Riverhawks coach Norm Bazin lamented, both in terms of Lowell's ability to adjust on the fly (even on an off-night), and in the comeback that wasn't to be, ending the Riverhawks' historic season.
"We've been down by scores of 4-2 and 4-1 and come back, I believed until the very end," Bazin said.
Mysteriously, the Riverhawks seemed flat to begin the game, and in a sense, were given a taste of their own medicine.
"We didn't have our legs," said Senior captain Riley Wetmore, remarking that Yale "did to us what we normally do to teams."
Yale peppered the UMass-Lowell net all night, forcing a career-high 45 saves from freshman goalie Connor Hellebuyck. The Bulldogs used scrappy neutral zone play and a shoot-first attitude to wreak havoc with a normally steady UMass-Lowell defensive corps.
Perhaps the rhythm was disrupted early on by some uncharacteristically sloppy play.
Discipline has been a hallmark of Norm Bazin's team since the end of December. In the four single-elimination games leading up to the Frozen Four, the Riverhawks averaged just over 4 penalties per game. But whether it was stage fright, or as Wetmore said, they just didn't have its legs, the Riverhawks dug themselves into a costly 2-0 hole early.
More than anything else, UML looked rattled, taking two first period penalties, followed up by multiple turnovers on the penalty kill.
The first Yale goal was sniped by freshman Mitch Witek, whose shot was nearly redirected into the net by Kenny Agostino. Anticipating the deflection, Connor Hellebuyck - who has been unflappable all season - didn't seal the short-side post and got beaten cleanly.
Killing off the second penalty of the period, had acres of space in the corner of his defensive zone to clear the puck. He stared down Gus Young, who was waiting to see where the clearing try went, and then fired it right to Young's stick. UML's penalty killing unit, anticipating the end of the man advantage, had to switch direction. From there, the Bulldogs easily worked the puck down low for Antoine Laganiere to bury.
Trailing 2-0 and being outshot handily, UMass Lowell sprang back to life with back-to-back goals in a 14 second span in the second period. Riley Wetmore swept in a bouncing puck from the top of the crease. Just 14 seconds later Joseph Pendenza sniped the top right corner of the net on a transition rush, electrifying the supporters seated just feet away.
It appeared that UML had finally rumbled to life, but by the third period, the heavy legs returned. The Riverhawks were suffocated for the rest of the game, managing just three shots the rest of the way, leading Norm Bazin to contemplate what might have been.
"Truthfully, I thought we had a lot more in the tank," Bazin said. "I didn't think we skated like we usually can."
The loss ends UMass-Lowell's historic season with 28 wins, a Hockey East first place finish and post-season title, but as the page turns to the next season, there's a lot of promise, especially considering goalie Connor Hellebuyck is only a freshman.
"It'll take some time to put this behind us," Bazin said. "I'm very proud of this group. The whole group had an opportunity to accomplish what no other group at Lowell has ever done. This is going to sting for a while, but Connor as well as the rest of the group, I'm very proud of. He's got a good future ahead of him, and I'm happy that he's a Freshman."
The Bulldogs approached the game with swagger and without fear. That same persistence got them past powerhouses Minnesota and North Dakota in Grand Rapids. At every opportunity, the Bulldogs fired shot after shot onto Connor Hellebuyck, causing a number of close calls for the Riverhawks, especially late.
"The game plan was to take shots, get to rebounds," said Yale senior forward Antoine Leganiere.
Despite the pummelling, the Riverhawks still forced overtime, leading to creeping doubt as to whether or not the Bulldogs could break the deadlock. Yale coach Keith Allain has seen plenty of games that end up that way, but knew that with the ice tilted in their favor, so were the chances of netting the game-winner.
"If we stuck with the plan, the odds were on us breaking through," Allain said, adding that, "as much as we created offensively, I thought we were rock-solid defensively."
The star of the evening, of course, was Andrew Miller, who scored the overtime winner, a goal that Allain wasn't afraid to call "perhaps the biggest goal in Yale hockey history."
And yet, instead of being awestruck in the moment, Miller seemed casual, businesslike, brushing off the idea that the Bulldogs consider themselves underdogs or pay any attention to bulletin-board material. After all, reaching this stage is an accomplishment, but there's another game to be played on Saturday.
Miller made that point clear saying, "I don't think you need any motivation to play in a national championship game."