PITTSBURGH -- The sting of defeat was still too fresh for UMass Lowell freshman goalie Connor Hellebuyck to reflect on the broader majesty of these 2012-13 River Hawks.
A great season -- the best in UMass Lowell's Division 1 hockey history -- moments before ended in a far-from-great performance. Yale defeated UMass Lowell, 3-2, in a national semifinal at the Consol Energy Center, when Bulldogs captain Andrew Miller scored 6:59 into overtime.
This was probably the only overtime loss in Frozen Four history not described as "heartbreaking." Because on this night, the River Hawks seemed lucky just to survive into overtime. There, it was hoped, a lucky bounce might buy them a mulligan to the title game.
When the end came, one did not sense shock so much as a realization that the better team on this night had prevailed. Yale outshot UMass Lowell 47-18, including 23-3 over the final 27 minutes, 7-0 in the overtime.
So when asked to reflect on the broader tale of this 28-11-2 season of UMass Lowell hockey, a despondent Hellebuyck said, "You have to let (this loss) sink in for a little while. Think about everything that happened and think about things that you can do better and improve on. Once that kicks in, you'll start working on the next season, and try to follow up on what we just did. I think that's when (the accomplishments) will sink in."
Skating only two seniors among their 18 regular forwards and defensemen (and six freshmen), these River Hawks went farther than any UMass Lowell Division 1 team before it.
Chancellor Marty Meehan frequently speaks of the great exposure for the university provided by these real student-athletes -- a T-E-A-M that reached the Frozen Four, and a hockey program that has registered the highest GPA of any male athletic team at UMass Lowell in five of the last six years.
As far as national exposure, ESPN2 on a Thursday afternoon at 4:30, opposite the Masters on ESPN, might not be the optimum. Especially when Barry Melrose is never sure if those are River Hawks or Redhawks. But it is still pretty good. And the prevailing sense is coach Norm Bazin's program is trending inexorably toward the Saturday night championship game in primetime.
Two seasons ago, the River Hawks won five games. In two seasons under Bazin they have won 52 games. They fell one victory short of the Frozen Four last year, and fell one victory short of the national championship game this year.
This team deserves a parade.
The River Hawks on Thursday were a great team of proven performers in the cauldron of post-season hockey that simply had a bad night.
"And make no mistake about it, Lowell is a great and worthy opponent," said Yale coach Keith Allain. "And that's what makes the win so special for us."
That, and of course the Bulldogs, who slew hockey powers Minnesota and North Dakota in the West Regional, also get to play for a national championship on Saturday night against its Connecticut neighbor, Quinnipiac. The schools are seven miles apart.
UMass Lowell is left to proceed toward a brighter future beyond this disappointment, but without the only captain to ever lead the program to consecutive NCAA Division 1 tournaments. "Yeah, I think these guys have a great future," said senior captain Riley Wetmore. "They have great leadership in the locker room for the next couple of years. For me, it's just disappointing that ... I can't put it into words. It's just tough right now."
Captain Wetmore provided a spark. The River Hawks trailed 2-0 in the second period -- and it felt like 5-0 the way the game was going. Wetmore then scored his 16th goal of the season at 14:38 of the period, and 14 seconds later, junior Joseph Pendenza of Wilmington tied the game with his 15th goal of the season.
But the captain's spark did not ignite beyond that.
"We have a lot of guys returning next year," said sophomore defenseman Zack Kamrass. "It's a great learning experience and something to build off of for future years to come."
So, River Hawks fans, cheer up. See you next April in Philadelphia (site of the 2014 Frozen Four).