BOSTON -- Boston College’s season was on the line in Saturday night’s Hockey East title game at TD Garden.
The Eagles’ pressure in the third period was relentless and it resulted in a goal, but it was UMass Lowell’s quality chances that won the night.
The top-seeded River Hawks scored twice in each of the first two periods and held on for a 4-3 decision ― its third straight win and 10th in the last 11 games ― as BC scored a goal and held a 15-2 shooting advantage in the third.
“Well, wow. That’s what I can say,” UML head coach Norm Bazin said after his team advanced to 26-10-3 on the season. “It’s such a relief. The guys bent in the third period but they didn’t break. I’m very, very proud of that group inside the locker room. … It wasn’t perfect, but it’s a win.”
They don’t ask how, but it took a team effort. When push came to shove, Bazin’s leaders led.
Senior Joe Gambardella scored the winning goal at the 11:37 mark of the second period, lifting the River Hawks to their third-ever league title in a span of five consecutive appearances, but their first since 2014.
Gambardella beat BC freshman Joseph Woll from a tight angle in the left circle for the winner, which senior captain Michael Kapla set up with a cross-ice pass. The assistant captain Gambardella’s 18th goal of the season also pushed him over the 50-point mark.
“I think we just take pride in who we are and what we do and everyone is willing to commit to the team,” said junior C.J. Smith, who scored a goal and three points, and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. “I think it really shows. We don’t care who we’re playing, we’re just going to go out there and play Lowell hockey.”
The Eagles swarmed the Lowell end in the waning minutes. At 17:15, senior Ryan Fitzgerald’s extra-attacker goal brought the Eagles within one, slotting home the rebound from sophomore J.D. Dudek’s shot off the skate of freshman goaltender Tyler Wall for his 12th goal of the season.
Fitzgerald’s Eagles were a crossbar, with 37 seconds to play, away from tying the game. Instead, their season will come to an end short of the national tournament for the first time since 2009.
“I thought our club played very well tonight, certainly a lot better than our two losses to Lowell (during the regular season),” BC head coach Jerry York said. “From the midpoint of the second period, we really had a lot of offensive ice time and more quality chances.
“I thought we held our own. In this game, when crossbars go in, you advance to national tournaments and get a chance to do something special. Did we deserve better tonight? I thought so.”
It took just 66 seconds for the River Hawks to draw first blood as Smith stole the puck in the neutral zone and drove through the left circle for his 22nd goal of the season, an unassisted tally.
BC would not bow over to its opponent’s fast start as it scored two of the next three goals to finish the first period in a 2-2 tie, but a two goals in less than two minutes midway through the second would ultimately lift the River Hawks.
Senior Austin Cangelosi brought the Eagles even at 5:31, tipping Dudek’s initial shot from above the left circle past Wall, who finished the night with double-digit saves in each period and 38 total, just two shy of his season high.
At 12:06, the River Hawks jumped in front for the second time after a relentless sequence in front of Woll. Junior defenseman Chris Forney drove home his fourth goal of the season from above the left circle, following a feed from Smith, who became the first-ever Lowell skater to be named MVP.
It was a sign of Lowell’s depth. Forney was one of 19 players to light the lamp this season, but had not done so in five games.
“We just all complement each other so well,” Gambardella said. “I think the team camaraderie on and off the ice and our chemistry has been very solid. At the end of the day, we don’t have a first, second, third or fourth line, every line contributes on every single night and we can all produce.”
The second goal of BC freshman Graham McPhee’s rookie season came at an important time, at the 18:38 mark of the opening frame. McPhee leveled the Eagles once again, placing a backhander over Wall’s shoulder on the shorthand.
Wall stood tall in the second period as his offense established the game’s first and only two-goal lead, making 13 saves. It would be the frame that ensured his third win in as many games this season against the Eagles, making Lowell one of just two Hockey East teams to beat BC more than once this season.
“He was outstanding today, and I don’t think you win a championship without a great goalie,” Bazin said. “Wall did an outstanding job. We didn’t need him as much last night, but he certainly was huge.”
Junior John Edwardh put Lowell ahead 10:05 into the second, stuffing home a loose puck at the right post after Gambardella’s initial try on goal. With Gambardella’s two-point night, he finishes his career with at least one point in all seven games he played at TD Garden.