Vin Sylvia: The better team won
MANCHESTER -- Forget blame. Credit the victors. The better hockey team won Saturday night, plain and simple.
This wasn't November and December, when the University of New Hampshire was fully healthy and UMass Lowell's Connor Hellebuyck was a backup goalie seeing action against the Wildcats only in the third period of a blowout loss - the River Hawks' third defeat against UNH in those two months.
This was the NCAA Northeast Regional final, UNH was suddenly missing its top two scorers, and UMass Lowell was the hottest team in the country, winner of 12 of its previous 13 games, including the Hockey East championship and Friday's 6-1 thrashing of Wisconsin in the regional semifinals.
The better team won, 2-0, and so it's UMass Lowell (28-10-2) going on to its First Frozen Four while UNH (20-12-7) is done for the season, 2012-13 having ended the way every other season in UNH has ended since the introduction of the NCAA tournament: in defeat.
For the third time in four years, the season-ending defeat came after a victory in the opening round of a regional, this one at the Wildcats' second home, Verizon Wireless Arena.
Senior defenseman Connor Hardowa took little consolation in this year's final game coming in the NCAA playoffs, rather than the Hockey East tournament, as last year's did.
"We've been here one too many times, where we won the first game and then lost," Hardowa said.
Stop here if you don't want to hear about how UNH lost centermen Grayson Downing and Kevin Goumas to head injuries during Friday night's 5-2 victory over Denver in the semifinals. How it had just one of its regular lines intact for the final. How it was up against a team that had outscored its opponents 45-18 over the previous 14 games and a goaltender who may have become the nation's best since taking over the UMass Lowell net two months ago.
Read no further if you don't want to acknowledge that the Wildcats were impressive in coming from behind to score that victory over Denver despite the injuries to Downing and Goumas, that they were gritty in playing the River Hawks to a scoreless draw until 30 seconds remained in the second period.
Through the first 39:30, UNH goalie Casey DeSmith of Rochester matched Hellebuyck save for save, but Lowell broke through when Scott Wilson scooped up a carom off the back boards, wheeled around the net and slipped a backhander through DeSmith to send the Hawks into the second intermission with a 1-0 lead.
Against some teams, that might not seem like much, but against Lowell's relentless forechecking, neutral-zone traps and 6-foot, 4-inch goaltender, it proved insurmountable. DeSmith and UNH kept it close until a great individual effort by Lowell's Adam Chapie to fend off UNH's Brett Kostolansky and beat DeSmith to the top-left corner with 6:02 to play pretty much removed all doubt about the outcome.
"They played a really tough game," UNH senior forward John Henrion, an all-Northeast Regional Tournament selection, said of the River Hawks. "They strive off their forecheck - anything in the neutral zone that gets deep. It's tough for our defensemen, as it would be for any team to constantly have to go back and fetch pucks. And from there they get to the puck, they forecheck hard, and they kind of trap us. Then on the 1-2 they sit back and it's hard to make plays. It's nothing out of the ordinary; all teams do it. They're just pretty good at it, and they succeeded on that tonight."
Vin Sylvia is a New Hampshire Union Leader deputy managing editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.