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UMass Lowell crushes Notre Dame to advance to fifth straight Hockey East championship game

03.17.17 at 7:22 pm ET
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UMass Lowell is heading to the Hockey East championship game for the fifth year in a row. (WEEI.com)

UMass Lowell is heading to the Hockey East championship game for the fifth year in a row. (WEEI.com)

The middle of March is a time for traditions, like filling out your bracket, drinking green beer and watching UMass Lowell win at TD Garden. For the fifth straight year, Norm Bazin got his River Hawks to the Garden. And for the fifth straight year, they dispensed of their Friday night semifinal opponent to advance to the championship game, this time knocking off Notre Dame, 5-1.

The River Hawks fell behind on an early fluke goal from center ice, but that was pretty much the only time the result was in question. Lowell scored twice over the next couple minutes to take the lead and twice more in the second period to put the game well out of reach with a full period to go.

The River Hawks now await the winner of Friday night’s second semifinal between Boston University and Boston College. With the win, Lowell became the first team to reach five straight Hockey East championship games since Maine went to seven straight from 1987-1993.

To help put that in perspective, note that Lowell had reached the Hockey East title game just twice before Bazin took over in 2011. The River Hawks captured back-to-back titles with wins over BU and New Hampshire in 2013 and 2014, respectively, then lost to BU in 2015 and Northeastern last year.

“The guys like playing here, there’s no question,” Bazin said after the game. “It’s an exciting time of year to be playing hockey. It shows the stability, it shows the consistency within the program, the culture of accountability. The guys were itching to come back this year.

“This year was probably the most brutal in terms of regular season, so it was very difficult to get here. So we’re thrilled we’re here, but we’ve been on both sides of this. We’ve lost two championship games, we’ve won two. We’d like to be on the side of that 2013-14.”

Notre Dame took a 1-0 lead seven minutes into the game on a classic St. Patrick’s Day luck o’ the Irish play. Dennis Gilbert fired a pass toward Jack Jenkins at center ice and Jenkins redirected it toward the Lowell goal. It was a completely unremarkable play you see a dozen times a game, right up until the moment it took a tough bounce in front of River Hawks goalie Tyler Wall and skipped past him into the net.

The River Hawks had their goalie’s back, though, and answered immediately. Just 25 seconds after falling behind, freshman Kenny Hausinger set up classmate and linemate Colin O’Neill in the high slot for a one-timer that beat Cal Petersen.

Then the River Hawks took over for the remainder of the period. They grabbed the lead two minutes later when Ryan Lohin, the third member of Lowell’s all-freshman line with Hausinger and O’Neill, dug out a rebound off Mattias Goransson’s point shot and flipped it in. The Irish mustered just nine shot attempts and three shots on goal the whole period, with one of those shots on goal coming on the center-ice goal and two others coming from the blue line (final shots on goal in the game were 40-20 in Lowell’s favor).

Lowell isn’t exactly known for landing blue-chip freshmen, but that all-rookie line has gotten hot at the perfect time. In addition to its big first period Friday night, that trio combined for four goals and three assists in last Sunday’s Game 3 win over New Hampshire that sent the River Hawks to the Garden, with O’Neill and Hausinger each scoring twice. And oh by the way, Goransson, who has emerged as a solid top-four defenseman, is also a freshman.

In the second period, it was time for Lowell’s top line to chip in. Early in the period, C.J. Smith led a rush into the offensive zone and dished over to Joe Gambardella, who then took the puck behind the net before getting it back to Smith in front for the finish. It was Smith’s team-leading 21st goal of the season and Gambardella’s team-leading 49th point.

The nail in the coffin came with 1:08 left in the second when Hausinger set up a pinching Michael Kapla to make it 4-1. Nick Marin, another freshman, scored early in the third as the River Hawks piled on. Regardless of what happens in Saturday night’s championship game, Lowell will also be heading to the NCAA tournament in a week.

Friday’s loss marked the final Hockey East tournament game for the Irish, who are leaving for the Big Ten after four seasons here. Notre Dame’s season probably isn’t over, though, as it will almost certainly get an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament. CollegeHockeyRanked.com has the Irish with a 94 percent chance of getting in despite losing Friday.

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