LOWELL, Mass. – In sharp contrast to their season, the University of Maine started fast and faded late in their Hockey East playoff opener.

UMass-Lowell scored a pair of goals 21 seconds apart early in the third period to break up a tie and send the top-seeded River Hawks to a 4-2 victory over the No. 8 Black Bears before 3,070 at Tsongas Center Thursday in the opener of the best-of-three quarterfinals.

Maine must win Friday to force a decisive third game on Sunday. Otherwise, the River Hawks (23-10-2) will advance to the semifinals next weekend at the TD Garden in Boston.

“Too many penalties,” said senior Kyle Beattie, who was whistled for three of Maine’s six infractions, all of which came in the final two periods. “That swung the momentum of the game when we were in the box too much in the second period.”

Maine (11-18-8) took a 1-0 lead into the second, but Lowell tied it with less than three minutes remaining while the Black Bears were serving the third of three consecutive penalties.

“We weren’t able to put continuous pressure on them like we were in the first,” Beattie said. “I think we had them on their heels in the first period and then they came back in the second and brought it to us.”

Joey Diamond, another senior, was sent off the ice three times, for roughing, hitting after the whistle and clipping. The calls against Beattie were two trips and a hook.

“We’re talking about seniors — Beattie and Diamond,” said Maine Coach Tim Whitehead, who figured the tide would turn after Maine was awarded the game’s first four power plays. “You can’t give an official any opportunity to make a call. We knew that was coming. But you’ve got to move your feet. You can’t use your stick.”

Scott Wilson scored Lowell’s first two goals, including the tie-breaker early in the third period, stuffing a rebound past goalie Martin Ouellette.

Before the Tsongas public address announcer had a chance to report Wilson’s second goal, Joseph Pendenza buried a long rebound to make it 3-1.

“They do a great job of putting pucks to the net and crashing the net,” Whitehead said. “I was disappointed with the officials allowing them to park in the crease when Marty’s trying to get out, so I disagree with that, but again, we need to stay out of the box if we’re going to defeat this team, because this team is good.”

A slap shot tipped by Josh Holmstrom on a Lowell power play made it 4-1 to seal the victory, although Maine freshman Devin Shore swept a backhand past Lowell goalie Connor Hellebuyck with 47 seconds left and Ouellette pulled.

“We played a great first period,” Ouellette said, “but we didn’t play well enough to win. We’ve got to stay out of the (penalty) box, for sure.”

The Black Bears jumped to a 1-0 lead on their second power play of the first period, after Lowell mistakenly put six skaters on the ice.

On the first faceoff following the penalty, Ben Hutton rang a shot off the crossbar. Then with only three seconds left in the man-advantage, Jake Rutt’s shot bounced off the post and Hellebuyck’s back before dribbling into the net.

Halfway through the second period, Maine led 1-0 and had yet to be called for a penalty. In quick succession, off went Beattie, then Diamond, then Beattie again.

The Black Bears managed to kill off the first two but just 15 seconds of the third before Wilson wristed a shot past a screened Ouellette to tie the score.

Chad Ruhwedel and Derek Arnold assisted on the goal, upheld after a video review because of a River Hawk in the crease.

“The guy was actually in the crease, but I think the ref said our guy interfered with him, and that’s why he was in the crease,” Ouellette said. “Tough call, but I couldn’t really see.”

Although the matchup was 1 vs. 8, Lowell and Maine finished the season with the conference’s two best records since the holiday break.

For Lowell, that meant the first regular-season Hockey East title in school history — and first by any school other than Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire or Maine.

For the Black Bears, that meant climbing from the cellar to clinch a playoff berth on the final weekend of the regular season.

“I don’t think it’s that much different than the second half of the season,” Rutt said after the loss. “One game doesn’t win it. Two games does. We have all the confidence in the world.”

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

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