In which we recap the day's events in the NCAA tournament.
WORCESTER, Mass. — The No. 1 offense in the country. The No. 1 defense in the country. The Hockey East regular season champion. The Hockey East tournament champion. Meeting in the postseason for the first time since the latter began its ascent to the upper levels of college hockey.
That UMass Lowell and Boston College avoided each other to this point was something of a minor miracle, given that they'd traded off finishing first and second in their conference in each of the previous three seasons. Lowell bowed out early in 2012, BC in 2013 and 2014. This was the dream match to which interested league observers had looked forward for years: Irresistible Force v. Immovable Object.
It seemed reasonable, therefore, to assume that these the side which came up on the short end of the stick in this regional final would be the first of them to accede to the other's system. The fact that this one finished 4-3 should tell you everything you need to know about which of these two titans from the best conference in the country ended up knocking down another trip to the Frozen Four.
It's not, by the way, to say that Lowell, which finished its 41-game season conceding just 1.88 goals per game, is necessarily inept offensively. Far from it, in fact. The River Hawks had a number of very dangerous offensive weapons, but none in the vicinity of those that the super-ultra-mega-power Eagles top line features across the board. That top line, of course, features Johnny Gaudreau, Billy Arnold, and Kevin Hayes, and they once again combined for 2-4-6, and 10 of BC's 29 shots, which is just about right for them on any given night overall. They were on the ice for three of BC's four goals tonight, and that the team scored four actually brought its season average down to 4.1 per game.
“I think sometimes you look at statistics and you can make some descriptions of teams, but I look at Lowell, and they make some good plays,” said Eagles coach Jerry York, whose team is headed for its mind-bending 11th Frozen Four since 1997-98. “They have some excellent forwards, and they produce a lot of offense. I think with our team, you look at Gaudreau and Arnold and Hayes, and you think, 'Jeez we're just offense,' but we play some pretty good, hard-nosed defense, and I think any team that's successful is going to have a blend.”
One had to assume that Lowell would be able to bottle them up as they had on home ice a few weeks ago in a 2-all tie, but here the River Hawks were without last change to better match their best defensive units against this near-omnipotent and unrivaled scoring force. Things were exacerbated for the River Hawks when junior defenseman Jake Suter — son of Gary, cousin of Ryan — came up with what appeared to be a bum foot midway through the first period. He missed a lot of shifts over the final 40, and that put a lot of pressure on Lowell's defense, already playing without Joe Houk, its No. 3 who broke his hand last week against UNH.
Like Denver the day before, Lowell would have needed to play a near-perfect defensive game to keep that top line silent, or even to a dull roar, and about 12:30 into the first period, all hope of that abandoned them at 12:57 of the first period, when that terrifying troika broke in on a 3-on-1 due to some neutral-zone confusion as the River Hawks tried to get forward, and Hayes made sure they learned a hard lesson.
From then on, Lowell was chasing. Defenseman Michael Kapla answered for Lowell on the power play 5:15 later and the first period ended up tied at one. Then, after most of an evenly-played second, Arnold and Lowell captain Josh Holmstrom traded goals 1:10 apart. This all despite the fact that for much of the second period, that top line for BC wasn't much in evidence, unless you looked down at the other end of the ice and saw them hemmed in their zone by an aggressive Lowell cycle that just couldn't sneak one or two or three more pucks past freshman netminder Thatcher Demko.
Then, just 43 seconds into the third, it appeared that just such a chance had presented itself. Lowell forward Evan Campbell carried the puck down the right wing, and dipped below the goal line, then tried to center the puck with a backhander into the slot. It hit a BC defenseman's skate and crept past Demko. That was Lowell's first lead of the game, and it lasted 21 seconds.
BC rookie Ryan Fitzgerald evened things up again with a nice goal to split the D (though he was given a little too much space on the right side), and that hope for a staunch own effort by the best defensive team in the country, backed by the best goaltender, more or less evaporated. That goal was the first since March 14 to not feature the names of anyone on that top line next to it.
“I thought we responded twice in the game,” Lowell coach Norm Bazin said. “We had to chase the game twice to tie it up, and I was hoping to play with a lead for a little while, and make them earn it. They responded fairly well in their end, and that was it.”
The thing with Lowell trying to go punch-for-punch with anyone is that they can do it, but usually only to a point. Both games in which they allowed more than three goals this year ended in losses, and when you try to go punch-for-punch like that with a team like BC, well, you're going to end up counting the lights. On the balance, Lowell probably produced more chances than BC, but they were always going to lack the lethality of a team with a skill threshold that allowed it to shoot 16.1 percent this weekend (against two of the best goalies in the NCAA, mind you) and 12.9 percent for the season.
“You've got to finish on your opportunities,” said Bazin. “We had a couple flurries, we just didn't finish. It's the same old adage: When you get an opportunity against a good team, you better finish or it can come back to haunt you.”
Normalcy, if you want to call it that, returned on the game-winner, which came with 8:48 remaining in the game. While only Hayes picked up the secondary helper on Ian McCoshen's first goal since Jan. 18, it was the work of that line to keep Lowell stuck in its own zone for a full shift that really made the difference. Freshman defenseman Teddy Doherty came off the wall down low, and exploited the fact that Suter had been left without a stick and Campbell was in the process of handing his over to the unarmed defenseman, to find McCoshen open at the hashmarks.
“He’s one of the louder guys on the team,” Doherty said. “I was thinking shoot all the way, and he was screaming and thankfully I passed it over and he made a nice shot.”
BC held on over the last several minutes, often turning back the Lowell rush in the neutral zone, and dumping the puck in on goal when they got the chance rather than getting numbers forward and opening themselves up to the counterattack, on which the River Hawks can be deadly. That inability to hold their only lead of the game, though, seemed to loom large over the proceedings, and there wasn't much in the way of Grade-A chances down the stretch for either team. Demko ended up outdueling the best goalie in the nation, stopping 29 of 32, while Lowell's Connor Hellebuyck allowed four on 29.
“I think we could have plugged away after we scored to make them earn the next one, rather than give it up right away, it might have been a different result,” Bazin said.
Again, much had been made about the inability of anyone not wearing Nos. 13, 12, or 24 to score goals over the last few weeks, and that two Eagles did tonight has to be a load off everyone's minds headed to Philadelphia -- especially coming as they did against a defense that had previously been near-impenetrable. York summed up his going concerns about his team's scoring depth pretty simply.
“As long as we get one more goal than the opposition,” he said, “I'm pretty happy with the offense.”
Minnesota 4, St. Cloud State 0
You could have set your watch to this result. A lethal offense like Minnesota playing against a deeply average goaltender like St. Cloud's was going to produce it. The Gophers got one in the first, two in the second, and one again in the third. By that final one, though, Huskies starter Ryan Faragher had been pulled in favor of Charlie Lindgren, having conceded three on just 15 shots over 34:40.
That the Gophers were that ineffective going forward early on might speak to a certain amount of economy in the offense, but it's certainly out of character as well. Usually they pile up the shots and allow very few, but things were close here, and you might be able to chalk at least a little of that up to score effects.
But nonetheless, by the time Justin Kloos added his second of the game slightly less than halfway through, the final 30:07 was academic. Adam Wilcox picked up the 24-save shutout, as St. Cloud mustered just nine shots on goal through the final period thanks to a parade to the penalty box.
That set up a North Dakota/Minnesota national semifinal, opposite one between BC and Union. Those are perhaps the two best games you could have hoped for in Philadelphia, from a storyline standpoint. The former two hate each others' guts, the latter two met in the tournament last year, with the Eagles catching the short end of the stick.
This is going to be a hell of a Frozen Four.
1. Kevin Hayes, Boston College
Hayes had the game's opening goal, and assisted on his team's second and fourth, capping a seven-point weekend and running his season total to 27-36-63 in just 39 games. The fact that he's not even the leading scorer on his own team with those numbers tells you just how effective that entire line is. It's not even fair to everyone else, and it's difficult to imagine a more perfect union of talent.
2. Justin Kloos, Minnesota
Two goals in the game that gets your team back to the Frozen Four, following a game in which you also scored once? That's good enough.
3. Adam Wilcox, Minnesota
Likewise not allowing a goal to a team that entered the tournament shooting north of 11 percent for the season. That's a great way to bounce back from a tough performance (albeit one that didn't matter much) against Robert Morris the night before.