Lowell, MA- Between 1978 and 1982, Merrimack College and UMass Lowell forged a great rivalry, winning a combined four national championships at the Division II level. Since then, the schools have been regular Hockey East foes, separated by only 9.9 miles. The opening round of the 2018 Hockey East playoffs provided these teams a chance to spark the rivalry again, with Lowell trying to reach their sixth consecutive Hockey East Championship game. Merrimack pulled an overtime victory on Friday night at the Tsongas Center and looked for the knockout on Saturday night. It was hard to earn, but it was won.
The first period opened up slowly, with both teams trading hits and checks, but not many shots. Merrimack won the shot battle only 7-6. The Warriors skated hard and controlled the pace of play, with heavy shifts and plenty of board battles. The Riverhawks looked to change momentum late, with a minor penalty on Tyler Drevitch. Merrimack killed most of the minor, and with three seconds left, Brett Seney and Michael Babcock created a two on one rush. Seney passed and Babcock fired a shorthanded shot by Lowell goalie Christoffer Hernberg to give Merrimack a 1-0 lead.
The second period was again, ugly and slow, with three stoppages of five minutes or more. And again, neither team got more than ten shots. Lowell won the shot battle 9-6. And they looked to have momentum following a five minute slashing major on Alfred Larsson. They got nothing on it, though. Merrimack killed most of the penalty and Kenny Hausinger took a minor penalty with 2:08 left in the major.
As soon as the penalty ended, Larsson hopped out of the box, rushed on Hernberg, and scored to put the Warriors up 2-0. Lowell turned momentum their way when perfect passing out of a corner board battle resulted in a Mattias Goransson slot shot to get Lowell on the board. Merrimack still led 2-1 entering the second intermission.
Lowell came out of the gates firing in the third period. They won the shot battle 11-3 and stuffed Merrimack in the neutral zone for most of the frame. The momentum resulted in a Connor Wilson goal from the left slot 8:06 into the third. The Riverhawks kept up their attack, but Craig Pantano proved himself against the Lowell offense. He made 10 of his 30 saves in the third period, including three in the final shift of regulation. Pantano held firm and Tsongas Center hosted a second consecutive overtime playoff game.
Merrimack turned the pace back their way, outshooting Lowell 10-6 in the extra session. Each team had plenty of chances, and the fans appreciated the efforts from both sides. Ultimately, Merrimack got the better chances and landed the winning blow with 6:01 left in the overtime. Brett Seney fired a puck on net and Jace Hennig tipped the rebound by Hernberg to clinch the series victory.
Riverhawks Head Coach Norm Bazin was deflated after the game.
“I thought we were going to finish the game on that final shift in the third period. It’s a year of missed opportunities. Every time we won a game, we lost one the next night. It’s not the level of consistency you need if you’re going to win in Hockey East. We’re not used to finishing this early.”
The loss ends Lowell’s season with a 17-19-0 record. They fall short of reaching the Hockey East Title game for the first time since 2012 and only the second time in Norm Bazin’s career as head coach. The game also signals the end of six Riverhawk playing careers. Tommy Panico, Jake Kamrass, Ryan Collins, Alternate Captains John Edwardh and Chris Forney, and Captain Tyler Mueller will all graduate in May. They end their careers with three Hockey East Title Game appearances, a Hockey East Regular season and tournament championship in 2017, and two trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Merrimack Head Coach Mark Dennehy was elated after the win.
“It was a Herculean task to come into here this weekend. Lowell plays the right way and both these games could’ve gone either way. I thought they took it to us at times and that overtime couldn’t come quick enough. Pantano played great and we got contributions from everyone on our bench.”
Merrimack improves their record to 11-19-4 with the win. The Warriors won their first game at Tsongas Center since 2010 and win their first playoff series against Lowell since the jump to Division I. They will move on to play top-seeded Boston College at Conte Forum in the Hockey East Quarterfinals next weekend.