There comes a moment in every game when you realize that all of the crossed fingers, bargains with the hockey gods and adherences to the superstitions are just not enough to help a team that, for some strange reason, appears determined to lose. You know that the team really hasn’t chosen to lose, but their play seems to say otherwise. Such was the case in the Hockey East Championship game with the University of New Hampshire’s Wildcats on Saturday night.
It was such a dramatically different team on Saturday than the one that took the Providence College Friars to task on Friday night, that the question loomed — What is the team doing?
On Friday night, the Wildcats were clearly determined. Their passing was crisp. Their goalie was strong in the net. And when the final buzzer sounded on the second of the two semi-final matches, the Wildcats had gotten the job done in a manner that spoke loudly of their resolve. After all they had made the Friars goalie look like a rookie, scoring three unanswered goals in the second period; the first of which was a short handed goal by senior Kevin Goumas. Goumas would go on to get the third goal for the Wildcats with just .04 seconds left on the clock in the second. That shouts determination.
Everyone had expected the final to be a tilt between the University of Massachusetts Lowell River Hawks and the Providence College Friars. The River Hawks were the defending champions and were determined to prove that their win the previous season had not been a fluke or one-hit-wonder. And the Friars had Jon Gillies between the pipes. The 20-year-old New Hampshire native has represented his country three times, including the last two years in the IIHF World Juniors. It was expected that he would deny the Wildcats.
When asked after the win on Friday about if he was thinking about the possible end of his season because he was a senior, Goumas admitted that indeed he had been thinking about it and was determined to make sure that each game wasn’t his last. Given his play that night it certainly sounded like he was walking the walk. Another motivation for the Wildcats for Saturday was their need to win in the Hockey East Championship to earn a slot in the NCAA Hockey Tournament. They were the only team of the four teams who played on Friday night who needed these points.
So it was anticipated that Saturday night’s match would be one for the books in regard to watching one great hockey game. After the first period though, having seen the River Hawks score two goals and watched the Wildcats come out sluggishly, it appeared that instead of a game for the ages it would be one for the River Hawks to school the Wildcats in how to win a hockey game.
Of course, in hockey, 40 minutes is still a lot of time and a lot can happen to right the ice–or in this case tilt it even further in favor of Lowell. For the UNH fans, it no doubt got tiresome listening to the announcer with his rhyming “Looooowell Goooal.”
There was never a moment during the game that it looked like the Wildcats had given up. They continued to pester the opposition and put pucks on goal. Unfortunately for them, as the score mounted in favor of the River Hawks, it began to look like the Wildcats had a better chance of scaling Mount Everest than getting rubber past Lowell’s goalie–Connor Hallebuyck.
In fact, for the second year, as the River Hawks won, Hallebuyck would be named the MVP (the first player in the 30-year history of Hockey East to do so). As the score reached the 4-0 mark, it was remarked that in his collegiate career he had allowed four goals in only two games. If the Wildcats were looking for a silver lining in that statement, it may have been that Hallebuyck’s collegiate career was only in its second year. Of course, that means a lot of bad news for the schools that will play against the River Hawks for the next two seasons, because many of them will be introduced to this brick wall in front of the goal mouth.
Perhaps the most telling moment in the game though was when Wildcats head coach, Dick Umile, pulled his starting goalie, Casey DeSmith with 5:09 left in the final period and replaced him with senior Jeff Wyer. By this time the Wildcats at least had awakened in their own end and the last goal DeSmith had allowed was at 18:43 of the second. No, in this case the change was so that Wyer could play on TD Garden ice in the Hockey East Championship. That was the moment that it was clear that the coach realized the futility of the task and wanted his graduating goalie to get an opportunity to be able to tell a story later in life about actually playing in the championship instead of just watching it–albeit from the best seat in the house.
Of course the River Hawks were still in “take no prisoners” mode and would put an additional five shots on goal in that remaining time, so it wasn’t like Wyer was standing around enjoying the scenery.
As the final buzzer sounded, the River Hawks celebrated with whoops and hollers, throwing their gloves and buckets up in jubilation, having accomplished what they set out to do. At the other end of the ice the Wildcats stood, holding in their emotions.
The UMASS LOWELL CHAMPIONS flag was unfurled and the Hockey East banner lowered so the flag could be attached. The Wildcats continued to wait; continued to hold their disappointments in check, as the River Hawks continued to hug and congratulate each other.
Finally the torture was over for the Wildcats, as both teams lined up for the shaking of hands. Perhaps some of the Cats did it grudgingly, but such is the tradition in hockey.
And at long last the Wildcats could get off the ice, go to their locker room and allow the unhappiness to settle in. Unfortunately for them–unlike after other losses–there would be no next game to get ready for to help ease the pain. And for Goumas and the other seniors, the end of the game marked a bittersweet end to their collegiate careers.