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Shorthanded Wildcats bounced from NCAA Tournament

  • UNH's Dalton Speelman gets checked by UMass Lowell's Chad Ruhwedel while trying to control the puck in the third period of the NCAA Northeast Regional final at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester on March 31, 2013. UNH lost 2-0. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

    UNH's Dalton Speelman gets checked by UMass Lowell's Chad Ruhwedel while trying to control the puck in the third period of the NCAA Northeast Regional final at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester on March 31, 2013. UNH lost 2-0.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

  • UNH's Trevor van Riemsdyk takes a moment before leaving the ice after the team's 2-0 loss against University of Massachusetts Lowell int the NCAA Northeast regional final on March 31, 2013 at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

    UNH's Trevor van Riemsdyk takes a moment before leaving the ice after the team's 2-0 loss against University of Massachusetts Lowell int the NCAA Northeast regional final on March 31, 2013 at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

  • UNH's Justin Agosta (12) comforts Connor Hardowa (2) after the team's loss against University of Massachusetts Lowell in the NCAA Northeast Regional Final at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester  on March 31, 2013. UNH lost 2-0.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

    UNH's Justin Agosta (12) comforts Connor Hardowa (2) after the team's loss against University of Massachusetts Lowell in the NCAA Northeast Regional Final at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester on March 31, 2013. UNH lost 2-0.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

  • UNH's Scott Pavelski shoots for the goal during the third period of the NCAA Northeast Regional Final  against the University of Massachusetts Lowell on March 31, 2013 at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester. UNH lost 2-0. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

    UNH's Scott Pavelski shoots for the goal during the third period of the NCAA Northeast Regional Final against the University of Massachusetts Lowell on March 31, 2013 at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester. UNH lost 2-0.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

  • UNH's Dalton Speelman gets checked by UMass Lowell's Chad Ruhwedel while trying to control the puck in the third period of the NCAA Northeast Regional final at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester on March 31, 2013. UNH lost 2-0. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)
  • UNH's Trevor van Riemsdyk takes a moment before leaving the ice after the team's 2-0 loss against University of Massachusetts Lowell int the NCAA Northeast regional final on March 31, 2013 at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)
  • UNH's Justin Agosta (12) comforts Connor Hardowa (2) after the team's loss against University of Massachusetts Lowell in the NCAA Northeast Regional Final at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester  on March 31, 2013. UNH lost 2-0.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)
  • UNH's Scott Pavelski shoots for the goal during the third period of the NCAA Northeast Regional Final  against the University of Massachusetts Lowell on March 31, 2013 at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester. UNH lost 2-0. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

MANCHESTER – The jubilation didn’t last long for the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team. One day after an emphatic 5-2 first-round victory over Denver, the Wildcats went into the Northeast Regional final with a plethora of factors working against them.

The team they were up against was the hottest in the country. They were facing a defense and goalie that were mowing down the competition in front of them. And they were going to have to overcome all of it with their two top forwards – Kevin Goumas and Grayson Downing – out of action.

For nearly two periods, UNH kept itself afloat. But it was too much to ask. One mishap was all it took, and the Wildcats saw their season end at the hands of top-seed UMass Lowell, 2-0, at the Verizon Wireless Arena.

“They make it tough,” Coach Dick Umile said of the Hockey East champions, whose 22-3-1 record since Christmas is the best in the nation. “They don’t let you open it up. They play the 1-2-2, they play it well.

“(The injuries) changed things, but it’s a team and other guys stepped up like they have in the past. … I thought they came out and competed against a very good team and it was up for grabs right to the end.”

Standing in between UNH and its first Frozen Four appearance since 2003 was Connor Hellebuyck, the River Hawks’ sensational freshman goaltender, who had won 19 of the 21 games he played. That task became tougher when Goumas, UNH’s top scorer and playmaker, and Downing, its third-highest scorer, were kept out due to upper body injuries suffered in the win over Denver.

Umile called it a “difficult situation,” and senior forward Austin Block knew the offense was facing an uphill battle.

“Do I think that hurt us a little bit on the offensive side? Probably,” he said. “You can’t replace guys like that. They’re our two best offensive players for a reason.”

Faced with a hampered team, the Wildcats got busy making it work. They matched UMass Lowell’s stifling defense, defended themselves against rushes and made the River Hawks work for every chance they got and every shot they took.

For most of two periods, the strategy was working. The Wildcats were keeping pace, rarely getting open looks on offense but not giving up many in return. One goal was going to make the difference, and the Wildcats were hiding their offensive deficiencies by engaging in a defensive struggle.

“We played strong the first two periods,” senior forward John Henrion said. “Coming into the game, we knew it was going to be a close game. … And that’s typical playoff hockey, and facing a team that’s that gritty, and that tough defensively.”

The strategy still needs the first goal, and UNH could only watch as it went the other way. With only 29.7 seconds left in the second, the puck rolled around the boards behind UNH goalie Casey DeSmith and bounced back near the crease. Senior defenseman Connor Hardowa had a brief chance to clear the puck but wasn’t able to corral it, and Scott Wilson eventually punched it by DeSmith to put the River Hawks up 1-0.

“We pre-scouted it,” UMass Lowell Coach Norm Bazin said. “We felt that (DeSmith) was vulnerable underneath the goal line and whether it’s true or not we were aiming to work pucks down low. They’ve got such a good defensive corps that we didn’t get that opportunity too many times tonight.”

They got it when they needed it, however, and they had too much defense for UNH to overcome with the urgency ramped up in the third. The Wildcats had trouble even getting shots through to Hellebuyck, and their attempts to set up chances in the attacking zone were met with quick clears and deflections that turned into possessions going the other way.

“They clog up the ice pretty well,” Block said. “We have some pretty fast guys, and they took away our speed a few times. It hurt not having Goumas and Downing, but we have enough good players. Tough game, and they scored more.”

Lowell crippled UNH’s chances with 6:02 left, when Adam Chapie took the puck at center ice, skated up to the net and lifted a shot under DeSmith’s arm for a 2-0 lead that, considering the River Hawks defense, seemed insurmountable.

UNH’s last gasp came when DeSmith was pulled with just under three minutes to go, but there would be no miracles. Instead, UMass Lowell got to celebrate its first-ever Frozen Four appearance, while the Wildcats had to deal with a crushing defeat that was made no easier by the impressive stage the team had reached.

“It still sucks,” Hardowa, the UNH captain, said. “We’ve been here one too many times, in this situation, where we won the first game and then lost.

“We had a good team come in here. … I thought we played a pretty good game, and there were just a couple of mistakes here and there that cost us the game, and that’s just how the game goes.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or abonifant@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @dbonifant.)

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