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Friday thoughts: A great start

October 14, 2011

If you read our preview of this weekend’s games, you’ll know that we kept expectations low. We’d seen enough of this team last year to know that was probably a good, conservative tactic for preserving our sanity.

But this year is not last year. We said we were hoping for for just one point this weekend, but we’ll take an organized, disciplined, strong season-opening 4-2 win instead.

In fact, we’ll do it gladly.

Lowell came in with a game plan and then over the course of 60 minutes worked it pretty solidly. The system is going hard to the net and keeping the puck in the attacking zone, and Lowell did that all night long. It was pretty apparent from the outset that Mankato’s D, with three freshmen and two sophomores in the lineup (sound familiar?), was going to try to keep Lowell pinned to the outside and hold it below the goal line. And as it turned out, that suited the River Hawks just fine. They worked their first three goals from behind the net either on wraparounds or feeds to the top of the crease, first drawing even, pulling ahead and then outpacing the overmatched Mavericks over the course of the game.

But the season also started as inauspiciously as the last one ended: Lowell gave up a goal relatively just 6:21 into the game as freshman D Zach Palmquist crushed a shot from the sideboards and popped the water bottle. To be fair, though, he had 24 square feet of net to shoot at because surprise starter Brian Robbins was off on an island somewhere. It was just the Mavericks’ seventh shot of the game and we got that old creeping feeling of dread and futility and why are they doing this to us out of complete force of habit. But then something strange happened.

Instead of folding up the tents as they would have last year, Lowell seemed somehow invigorated at having given up the first goal of the game, and responded with electrifying hockey. By the end of the first period, Lowell had allowed just 11 shots (remember, they gave up seven in the first 6:21) and put 17 on Mavs starter Austin Lee, who was more often betrayed by his defensemen than his near-inability to move laterally. And of course the score was tied thanks to a goal from — who else? — Riley Wetmore, whose strength and sticktoitiveness with a defender on his back and a goalie sprawled in front of him resulted in the tying goal 7:06 later. Lowell never trailed again.

Wetmore doubled his total and gave the River Hawks a lead they would never surrender early in the second period, driving the near side of the net, faking shot and wrapping it around (yes, again) the far side at just 4:12. Interesting bit of trivia on that goal, by the way: they gave Robbins the second assist on it, meaning a goaltender got his first college point in his first college game. How often do you think that happens? (We’ll do some research on that one later.) It was a dominant performance all night, even if he couldn’t close out the hat trick, and something we’ll now be counting on him to provide every game for the rest of the season. His line drove possession in just about every shift, but if we’re being honest, that was true of everyone. There was only a handful of troublesome MSU scoring chances, and most were ably snuffed out by the defense.

Lowell dominated possession tonight well beyond the 37-27 disparity in shots. It also drew five penalties and committed just one, though that was a major. Even during the major power play, though, Mankato looked disoriented and the best scoring chance of the five-minute stretch came as David Vallorani took the puck end-to-end, danced around a defenseman and nearly potted a shorthanded goal with just 0.8 seconds left in the second period.

One of the interesting quirks of last season — and here, “interesting” means “horrifying” — was that when the team stumbled out of the gate, it did so because the upperclassmen simply weren’t producing at acceptable levels. That wasn’t the case tonight. Two goals from Wetmore. And who netted the insurance? Why, it’s the guy we said needed to produce in his senior season: Matt Ferreira. His goal at 11:32 of the third period stood up as the eventual game-winner (MSU got one back when all hope was lost) and it sure was nice. Great feed from behind the net from Steve Buco, who followed up his strong performance against New Brunswick with a similar showing tonight, and an absolute snipe by the senior to finish the play and, effectively, the game.

The final nail in the coffin was driven in by Terrence Wallin, who was certainly the best freshman on the ice for either team. Less than four minutes after Ferreira’s goal, Wallin split the D and got the puck on net despite having the goaltender draped over him. The puck was in the net, somehow, and stood up to review, but he earned it just by cutting between two defensemen and coming out the other side with the puck on his stick. Poor Lee had no idea what to make of any of it. Wallin, by the way, finished the night with two points and a plus-3 rating. An extremely strong and very promising start to his college career.

Robbins conceded one more goal to end the game, but it was well in hand at that point and completely the result of a defensive breakdown — where else? — behind the net. Otherwise he was largely untested in making 25 saves and earning the win. Lowell did a wonderful job of keeping Mankato away from dangerous areas, and if this is the type of team defense they’ll play going forward, they’re going to put themselves in a good position to win a lot of games. Playing one of the worst teams in the WCHA will also help tremendously.

Two points is twice as many as we’d hoped for in the whole weekend and, having seen tonight’s performance, shouldn’t be the last of Lowell’s spoils.

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