Norm Bazin never has claimed to be in the prognostication business. The UMass-Lowell hockey coach is all about being pragmatic. That was his approach when his River Hawks stumbled out of the gate at the start of the Hockey East campaign, going 4-7-1 after suffering two losses against Boston College and three against New Hampshire.
“Those are historically some of the better teams in our league, so you can’t get too down,’’ Bazin said. “You’ve just got to keep plugging away until and refine your game.’’
But, with four conference games left in the regular season, even Bazin could not have predicted this kind of stretch drive by his team.
In a game Tuesday night that crackled with playoff-type intensity, the 10th-ranked River Hawks defeated fourth-ranked BC, 4-2, before a Conte Forum crowd of 3,708 to join the Eagles in a four-way logjam for first place atop the league standings.
“I’ve been told time and time again that this is probably the tightest race people have seen in Hockey East for a long, long time,’’ said Bazin, after freshman Christian Folin had broken a 2-2 tie in the third period by potting Joseph Pendenza’s goal-mouth feed to convert the odd-man rush at 15:13. Riley Wetmore added an empty-net goal at 19:14 to seal the verdict for Lowell.
“I don’t make too many predictions,’’ Bazin said. “We just deal with trying to get better every single week. If we keep making little tweaks in our game and try to improve, we’ll be there in the end.’’
The River Hawks (19-9-2, 13-8-2) certainly served notice of that after they defeated the Eagles (18-9-3, 13-8-2) for the first time in three regular-season meetings, and first time on BC’s home ice since 2009.
“I thought tonight was a playoff-type hockey game,’’ said BC coach Jerry York, whose team will need to run the table in its final four games against Providence and Vermont to remain in contention for the conference’s top seed. “There were not a lot of goals. Each puck was contested very, very hard along the boards, and in front of the net.
“It was a really puck-possession type of game and when you had it, you really had to protect it,’’ York said. “When they had it, it was tough to get the puck away from them.’’
The River Hawks capitalized on Brendan Silk’s hooking infraction to take a 1-0 lead in the first. Scott Wilson converted the power-play tally at 10:41 when he took Chad Ruhwedel’s tape-to-tape pass from the top of the slot and unloaded from the right circle with a slapper that beat BC goaltender Parker Milner (25 saves) to the far post.
Bill Arnold, who had found the net twice in a 5-2 home win over BU Dec. 1, did it again Tuesday night, helping the Eagles tie it twice. The first time, Arnold converted on a pretty feed from freshman Travis Jeke to make it 1-1 at 12:40 of the first.
It took the River Hawks only 23 seconds to respond when Josh Holmstrom scored after converting on Pendenza’s first of two assists on the night.
Trailing, 2-1, after the first, the Eagles ramped up their attack in the second on Lowell goalie Connor Hellebuyck (22 saves). Hellebucyk turned away the 11 shots he faced in the period to help preserve the River Hawks’ one-goal lead.
But that lead evaporated in the third when, with five seconds left on a power play created by Derek Arnold’s hooking minor at 6:45, Bill Arnold tied it at 2 at 8:40 with his strong drive up the left side.
Then came Folin’s game-winner.
“We had a chance to score in front of the Lowell goaltender,’’ York said. “We don’t score and they break out with a three-on-two coming back and made a terrific play to score the goal. That’s how close the game was, from my vantage point.’’
As Pendenza carried the puck up the left side, “I heard the bench yell, ‘Three-on-two!’,’’ he said. “I looked back and Christian was back there, so I gave it back to him.’’
Folin faked and sent it back to Pendenza, whose shot pin-balled in front of the net and found its way back to Folin for his fourth goal of the season, which vaulted Lowell into the four-way tie for first with four games to go.
“We can savor it for a little bit,’’ said Pendenza, who pointed toward a huge weekend series against Merrimack. “But we also know that we’ve got to get right back to work because the two games this weekend are just as big as this game tonight.’’