UMass-Lowell advanced to the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season. The River Hawks used their team speed and quick transition game to score multiple breakaway goals en route to a 6-1 win over previously red-hot Wisconsin.
The game also featured some missed opportunities for Wisconsin that could have changed the outcome of the game. Badgers junior forward Jefferson Dahl failed to convert on a penalty shot opportunity, and Wisconsin hit a post on a sequence that had to be reviewed to ensure the call on the ice was correct.
UMass-Lowell's leading scorer, Joseph Pendenza, got the River Hawks on the board first at the 7:11 mark of the first period. The junior was sprung up the left side after a nice breakout pass by linemate A.J. White. Pendenza skated in to top of the left circle where he wristed a shot right below the catching glove of Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel.
UMass-Lowell senior captain Riley Wetmore hauled down Dalh on a shorthanded breakaway with four minutes left in the period, leading to the penalty shot. "Stopping a penalty shot is certainly a momentum shift," said River Hawks head coach Norm Bazin. The second year coach understood, with his team up 1-0, that if the penalty shot had gone in, the game could have gone in a different direction.
Freshman defenseman Christian Folin gave UMass-Lowell a 2-0 lead when he finished off a nice feed from Scott Wilson at the 3:12 mark of the second period. It was Folin's sixth goal of the season. "He's been more opportunistic in the second half. He came in, and we knew he could contribute. It proves very useful when you have defensemen who can add to your attack," said Bazin.
With a little under six minutes to go in the second period, junior Shayne Thompson increased the River Hawks lead to three. The goal was scored on another transition play in which he and sophomore defenseman Jake Suter connected.
Bazin said the coaching staff emphasized in preparation all weekend the importance of transitioning quickly to prevent Wisconsin to set up their defense. "We were certainly trying to transition quicker because when they get into their structure and have three back it's hard to penetrate them. We felt like if we transitioned quick as possible, they wouldn't be able to get back," said the Hockey East Coach of the Year.
Wisconsin star freshman forward Nic Kerdiles cut the lead to two 8:19 into the third period when he snapped a puck that beat UML freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck through the five-hole. It appeared the UML goaltender could have been screened as the power play goal was snapped off in traffic.
Junior forward Derek Arnold, the hero of last week's Hockey East Finals, tallied his 13th of the season to push the River Hawks lead back to three. It was on a nifty give-and-go with freshman Ryan McGrath. The goal really took the life out of Wisconsin and was another instance of UML finding holes in the UW defense.
Coach Bazin credited some of the success in transition to his team's speed. "I thought our skating game got better as the game went along. Until they started pressing, it wasn't as much a factor as it should have been. I think it can be more of a factor for the whole game tomorrow," said Bazin.
Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said some of the transition success for UML was the result of his team not executing. "We've played some really fast teams. I don't think the speed was a factor. Our guys tried too hard. They were moving outside the dots and doing things we hadn't done in a while," said Eaves.
Freshman Adam Chapie scored an empty-net goal, and McGrath added a power play goal with just three seconds left to ensure an easy victory for the River Hawks.
With all the goals scored, the stellar play of Hellebuyck and the UML team defense might get overlooked. "They do a terrific job of collapsing down in their own zone and blocking shots," said Eaves about the UML defense. Hellebuyck made some key saves including holding his ground on the penalty shot. The Commerce, Mich. native finished with 31 saves on the game.
UMass-Lowell will face New Hampshire in the Northeast Regional Final Saturday night at 6:30p.m. The two higher seeds, both from Hockey East, advanced. The Wildcats could potentially be without two of their top forwards. Kevin Goumas and Grayson Downing both suffered head injuries in the Wildcats' 5-2 win over Denver.
Wisconsin's season was a tale of two halves. The Badgers struggled out of the gate playing without Kerdiles who was suspended by the NCAA for an eligibility violation. Mike Eaves' club really pushed hard in the second half and was probably the second hottest team in the country, only behind Lowell. The Badgers won the WCHA Tournament Championship, but their season ended in disappointment Friday.
Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.