LOWELL – For 52 minutes, 55 seconds, it looked like a goaltending battle for the ages.
Both Steve Mastalerz and Connor Hellebuyck carried their respective teams for the entire first and third periods, and a majority of the second as both sides struggled to find the back of the net despite some quality chances.
However, it was that other 7:05 in the second that ultimately decided the game.
All five of Saturday night’s goals were scored from 6:23 into the second period to 13:28, but only two belonged to the Massachusetts hockey team as UMass Lowell completed the season sweep of the Minutemen for the second year in a row with a 3-2 win in front of 5,468 at the Tsongas Center.
UMass (10-15-2, 7-12-1 Hockey East Association) had its chances to get the equalizer in the third thanks to the efforts of Mastalerz, who made 29 saves in his first start since Jan. 26, but struggled to control the puck in the neutral zone in the final two minutes, forcing Mastalerz to stay in net instead of sending out the extra attacker.
“We had a couple of opportunities there to get through the neutral (zone) and get pucks deep, but we weren’t able to,” UMass coach John Micheletto said.
The Minutemen dug themselves a 2-0 hole for the second straight night on special teams lapses 10 minutes, 6 seconds into the second period, but sliced the deficit 38 seconds later when Michael Pereira tipped in a shot floating in mid-air off the stick of Branden Gracel.
The River Hawks (16-9-2, 10-8-2 HEA) countered that response with one of their own 26 seconds later when Derek Arnold knocked in a rebound off a shot by Joe Houk at the point to make it 3-1. That’s the third time the duo connected in the series this weekend after doing so twice on Friday.
UMass cut the lead again at 13:28 in the second when Conor Sheary fired a shot from the slot past Hellebuyck (23 saves) off a feed from Gracel.
“The second period opened up for us,” Micheletto said. “We tried to push the pace, which is our norm, just in transition we got caught a couple of times and it hurt us.”
The Minutemen were especially hurt by their special teams. UMass went on its first power play 5:23 into the second period, but it was UMass Lowell that capitalized when a mishandled puck resulted in an odd-man rush led by Joseph Pedenza. Pendenza drew the defensemen then found Christian Folin in front of the net, who finished it with a shot that hit off the body of Mastalerz and into the net.
Riley Wetmore made it 2-0 with a power play goal from the left circle.
Both teams had their chances in the first period, but quality shots were at a premium. The Minutemen inserted three different players into Saturday’s starting lineup, but was without defenseman Conor Allen, who has been one of the most effective blue liners on the team.
Micheletto said after the game that Allen was a healthy scratch, but wouldn’t say whether or not it was because of his consecutive games with a game misconduct, calling it an internal matter.
The changes made the early stages of the game an adjustment period, forcing Mastalerz to make some big saves. The sophomore denied Michael Fallon on a breakaway chance in the first period, and also controlled the puck well and secured rebound opportunities.
The Minutemen haven’t beaten UMass Lowell since Jan. 15, 2011, and this is the first of the games that have been relatively close, something Micheletto attributed to better goaltending.
However, UMass still can’t seem to figure out the River Hawks.
“They play hard, we know what to expect when we play them,” Micheletto said. “So obviously it’s about trying to meet their aggressiveness, take advantage of the big ice and use our speed and skill. It obviously hasn’t worked, I understand that, but it’s not a different set of issues you’re trying to deal with. No more or less tough than anyone else.”
Despite the loss, UMass remains one point ahead of Maine for eighth in the Hockey East standings after the Black Bears lost 5-4 to Boston University in overtime. The Minutemen have a pivotal two-game series against Maine at the Mullins Center this weekend that could potentially put one team in the driver’s seat for the final playoff spot.
Before UMass can set its sights on that big series, it has a home game against Northeastern Tuesday at 7 p.m. that was rescheduled last weekend due to the snowstorm.
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.