MANCHESTER — Massachusetts Lowell has its spot in the finale.
The first-time Hockey East regular season and tournament champion River Hawks kept their impressive run going with a decisive 6-1 win over Wisconsin on Friday in the opening game of the NCAA Northeast Regional in front of 8,049 at Verizon Wireless Arena.
Led once again by stellar freshman goalie Connor Hellebuyck, the River Hawks improved to 27-10-2 and rolled into Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. regional final at the Verizon against No. 2 seed New Hampshire.
The River Hawks weren’t thrilled about their start — they were outshot 11-4 in the first period but still came out of it with a 1-0 lead — but were happy with the way things went after that.
“Our goaltender gave us the chance to right the ship and start playing the way we’re capable of playing,” said Lowell coach Norma Bazin.
“He’s been playing unbelievably for us,” said Scott Wilson, who had an assist on the winning goal. “He’s our rock back there.”
Hellebuyck, 6-foot-4 and a Winnipeg Jets draft pick, made 31 saves, including a stop on a penalty shot late in the first period that preserved the 1-0 lead.
Jefferson Dahl took the penalty shot and didn’t get as much on it as he wanted.
“It was kind of a waiting game and I guess I outwaited him.” Hellebuyck said.
Lowell last year played in the NCAAs for the first time since 1996. The River Hawks beat Miami, 4-3 in overtime, in their opener in the East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn., and lost to Union 4-2, in the regional championship.
They’ll try again Saturday night to win a regional and qualify for their first Division I Frozen Four.
The River Hawks lost all four games they played against the other two semifinalists here. They dropped a 5-1 decision to Denver on the road on Oct. 19 and then lost three times to UNH, the last time on Dec. 1.
Hellebuyck was in the net for the loss at Denver, but played only a period’s worth of relief against the Wildcats in one of the losses.
On Friday, junior Joseph Pendenza, Lowell’s leading scorer, came steaming down the left wing and beat Wisconsin’s Joel Rumpel (20 saves) to the glove side to open the scoring 7:11 into the game.
Christian Folin scored at 3:12 of the second period and Shayne Thompson at 14:08 and Lowell had its lead up to 3-0.
That was more than enough for Hellebuyck.
He had given up more than one goal only once in his last five games and that was a pair in a 4-2 win over Maine on March 14.
The Badgers finally got a puck past him for a Brendan Woods power-play goal at 8:19 of the third period.
Junior forward Derek Arnold gave Lowell back its three-goal edge with a score with 6:04 left. Adam Chapie added an empty net goal with 48 seconds to go and Ryan McGrath finished it off with three seconds to play.
The River Hawks and Badgers came into the NCAAs as two of the hottest teams in the country, both in the second half of the season and the last couple of weeks.
Lowell won its first Hockey East championship with a 1-0 win over Boston University in the finale at the TD Garden in Boston on Saturday.
Wisconsin won the WCHA tournament to secure its spot in the NCAA tournament.
Distributed by MCT Information Services