LOWELL -- Fourteen hours after winning their second straight Hockey East championship, they filed into the Tsongas Center shortly before noon Sunday to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show on ESPNU.
When UMass Lowell players sat down in four rows of chairs set up in the Sage Bank Pavilion, they saw a reminder of how close they came last year. Showing on the large screen in front of them were the final seconds of Yale University's 4-0 win over Quinnipiac in last year's NCAA championship game in Pittsburgh.
Yale reached that championship game by defeating UML in a national semifinal, 3-2 in overtime.
"That's not what I want to watch on my Sunday morning," said a smiling senior forward Joe Pendenza of Wilmington. "Overall, though, it was a good experience being down there (at the Frozen Four). Obviously it didn't end how we wanted it to. But at the end of the day, only one team gets to go home happy."
UMass Lowell fans and administrators cheering the River Hawks' entrance on Sunday -- soon to learn Minnesota State would be the River Hawks' first-round opponent on Saturday in Worcester -- suspected coach Norm Bazin's motivational hand in this Yale hockey programming.
"Everything is strategic with Norm," quipped athletic director Dana Skinner.
But honest, it was just ESPN's programming department.
And for the record, Yale did not make the NCAAs this year. The River Hawks are in for the third time in Bazin's three years as their head coach, having lost a regional final two years ago and a national semifinal last year during the program's first-ever trip to the Frozen Four.
The season before Bazin, UMass Lowell finished 5-24-4 and in last place in Hockey East. Now, Hockey East championships are causing massive overruns in the university's rings budget. Meanwhile, the River Hawks are once again after a more glittering prize.
"It's easy to see that we were close last year," said senior captain Josh Holmstrom after having to watch on Sunday a replay of Yale celebrating. "So hopefully we can get back there (to the Frozen Four) this year and take another run at it."
The stretch run toward hopefully becoming the team that goes home happy in the end begins for UMass Lowell on Saturday night at 7:30 against Minnesota State at the DCU Center in Worcester. The 25-10-4 River Hawks are the Northeast Regional's No. 2 seed behind Boston College (26-7-4), which will play Denver (20-15-6) in a 4 p.m. first-round game on Saturday. The regional championship game is next Sunday at 5 p.m. That winner advances to the Frozen Four in Philadelphia.
Minnesota State (26-13-1) on Saturday defeated Ferris State, 4-1, in the WCHA championship game. The Mavericks are in the NCAAs for the second straight year and for the third time in the school's Division 1 history. Last year they lost 4-0 to Miami in the first round of the Midwest Regional.
"It's going to be interesting to face an opponent we haven't faced (this season)," said Bazin. "We'll get as much information as we can this week. But it's about Lowell. It's about our team (and how the River Hawks play)."
The unveiling of the bracket on ESPNU drew cheers from fans in the room, mild applause from players. College hockey bracketology as a science has advanced to where UMass Lowell wound up exactly where the experts said it would.
Worcester is more convenient for UML's fans than Bridgeport, Cincinnati or St. Paul, the other regional sites. But Worcester is also where Boston College will be. For most of the season, BC was widely regarded as the best team in college hockey.
BC's roll acquired a wobble when UML rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the third period to tie the Eagles 2-2 on Feb. 22 at the Tsongas Center. That snapped BC's 11-game winning streak was the start of a 1-3-1 stretch that included the Eagles being upset by Notre Dame in the Hockey East quarterfinals.
Certainly the NCAA sees dollars by placing the regular-season and tournament champions from college hockey's toughest conference together in the same nearby regional.
"We all know BC is good," said Bazin. "We're Hockey East champions, they're regular-season champions. If we do happen to face each other, it will be a good match-up. But for now, Mankato (aka Minnesota State) is my only concern."
While analyzing the Northeast Regional bracket during the selection show, ESPN's Barry Melrose said Denver's Sam Brittain might be the best goalie in the country. That comment drew howls from UMass Lowell fans in the room.
UML sophomore goalie Connor Hellebuyck had just made 65 saves over the previous two nights while posting shutouts in Hockey East semifinal and championship-game victories. He is pretty good, too.
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