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Lowell moves on as Maine looks to future

UMass-Lowell is moving on to the TD Garden for the Hockey East semifinals for the first time since 2009. Meanwhile, Maine will miss the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in six seasons.

UMass-Lowell could be doing a lot more celebrating this season with how well the team is playing
UMass-Lowell could be doing a lot more celebrating this season with how well the team is playing

UMass-Lowell turned it on when they needed these past two nights just enough to sweep Maine out of the playoffs in the best-of-three Hockey East Quarterfinal series at the Tsongas Center.

The River Hawks trailed 1-0 in both games, but scored the last four goals Thursday night and the last two including the game-winner in overtime Friday night.

As one team's future seems clear and bright, another program enters the offseason with questions surrounding the program and a need for more depth and discipline.

The best player on the ice Friday night was Maine junior goaltender Martin Ouellette, but defensive breakdowns and an inability to stay out of the penalty box cursed Maine's upset bid both nights. Joey Diamond received two five-minute major penalties in the game Friday after taking three minor penalties Thursday. Maine coach Tim Whitehead said after the game that Diamond let his emotion get the best of him.

The River Hawks are moving on to the Hockey East semifinals at the TD Garden for the first time since 2009 when they lost to eventual NCAA Champion Boston University in the finals. Norm Bazin has quickly turned around the program. The River Hawks are poised to make the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive season and make no mistake about it. Boston College might be the three-time defending champion of the Hockey East Tournament, but the River Hawks are the favorites next weekend.

Lowell is the hottest team in Division I, going 20-3-1 over the last 24 games. The one concern is the inability to come out strong lately. UML has failed to get off to good starts in games the past month. That could burn them come NCAA Tournament time when it is one-and-done.

Scott Wilson is playing really good hockey lately. The sophomore from Oakville, Ontario has five points in the last three games. He will be a key to UML's playoff run. That is not to take away from the play of Joseph Pendenza, Josh Holmstrom, Derek Arnold and Riley Wetmore. It's just that when Wilson is out on the ice, he has the hands and the laser shot that makes him so dangerous every time he crosses into an opponent's zone.

For Maine, a dismal season came to an end, but the Black Bears certainly progressed as the year went along. Maine gave a valiant effort in Lowell this weekend. The Black Bears will miss the talent of Joey Diamond and Kyle Beattie, but there are players in the younger classes that can excel at this level.

As long as each of the freshmen return, Maine will have a solid building block for the future. Devin Shore came on strong once he became acclimated to the college game. Ryan Lomberg, Will Merchant and Steven Swavely can all be successful players in this league. Sophomore Connor Leen and junior Mark Anthoine have each proven they can be threats to score goals.

Freshman Ben Hutton and sophomore Jake Rutt are two defensemen that can move the puck up ice and be quarterbacks on the power play. Ouellete, a Columbus Blue Jackets prospect, could be one of the best goalies in the league next season if he is given more protection in front of his net. He's made some absolute highlight reel saves over the past month.

One huge question mark will be what Athletic Director Steve Abbott decides regarding the fate of Whitehead in Orono. The very vocal fanbase, one of the best in the country, has certainly voiced its displeasure of Whitehead. The attendance has not been up to par at Alfond Arena and the results this season combined with a lack of NCAA Tournament appearances over the past half decade could doom Whitehead.

If a change is to be made, expect it to be announced sooner than later. Jim Montgomery, a former Black Bear, and current head coach of the USHL's Dubuque Fighting Saints, would be a terrific replacement. He has assistant coaching experience at Notre Dame and RPI. He would bring passion back to the program and reinvigorate the fanbase.

As Maine's season comes to an end, UMass-Lowell has a chance to make history. The River Hawks are a very good hockey team and are no fluke. Outside of maybe Minnesota and North Dakota, Lowell has as good odds as anyone to bring back the ultimate prize in April.

Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation. Stay with SBNation and Western College Hockey for continuing coverage of the conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament.