Friday thoughts: Subterranean home draw blues
This is what we were afraid of.
Lowell has, in its recent history, made something of a habit of playing down to its opponents at the very worst times imaginable. Witness losing and needing an extended overtime to beat UConn last year, witness the three losses in six games to Providence, witness the loss at Northeastern, witness the loss at Vermont. Witness this season-opener.
There is, we think you’d agree, no reason that Lowell should be giving up points — whether it’s one or two — to Vermont. At home. On opening night. Vermont is now, because of Lowell’s feckless offensive performance and galling lack of discipline, already at one-seventh of their total point output for all of last year. You can come up with all the rationalizations you like here, including that this is early in the season, but this kind of result, regardless of the time of year, flatly isn’t good enough against an opponent of this rather low quality.
The thing with this game was that it started inauspiciously for the River Hawks and more or less remained that way. Yeah, they put 15 shots on goal during the period, and the only one that came from a truly dangerous area ended up in the back of the net. But other than that, the offense was sparse despite the high shot total. For one thing, Lowell took three penalties in that first period, none of them particularly wise, and though Vermont couldn’t cash in on any of the chances due to the fact that they are Vermont, these issues nonetheless drained any kind of flow out of Lowell’s game and did rather a nice job of wearing out the team’s best players. Routine features on the penalty kill included Chad Ruhwedel, Riley Wetmore and Scott Wilson, all of whom you don’t want logging those kinds of exhausting minutes early in games at this time of year (granted, though, Wilson took one of the three penalties in question).
It should further be noted that one of the slam-dunk, gimme, tap-in, sure things for Lowell this year was meant to have been the strength of the Wilson-Wetmore-Derek Arnold line, which wreaked wholesale havoc on opposing defenses for the latter half of last season. And, as with the exhibition, the River Hawk scoring triumvirate was kept apart for the first two periods of the game, with Norm Bazin instead favoring Wetmore and Arnold with Ryan McGrath, and Wilson with Terrence Wallin and Michael Colantone. There is an argument to be made against putting all your eggs in one basket, but at some point, long before you’ve only scored once on 30 shots through 40 minutes, you have to wonder whether it’s not a better idea to go back to what worked. The numbers again, for those scoring at home, were that Lowell’s best line last season scored 19 goals in 21 games together, and that’s the kind of production Lowell never looked like it would muster last night. Bazin put them together for much of the final period, which, as with the first, was characterized by too many Lowell penalties, which in turn disrupted whatever rhythm the team might have found after the coach surely peeled the paint off the dressing room walls in the second intermission.
Vermont, it must be said, was at least persistent. Clogging up the neutral zone? Yeah. Blocking a million shots (okay, only 25 to Lowell’s 16)? You bet. Winning more draws than Lowell? Sure thing. That latter one was problematic throughout the game, but was persistent in the first period. The Catamounts won 16 of 28 draws in the opening 20 minutes, and 34 of 63 in the game. This was particularly problematic on special teams. Vermont had five power plays to Lowell’s two, but what really stood out was the Catamounts’ ability to win 14 of the 19 draws when one team was shorthanded. That kind of thing either gave them a good jump on Lowell when they were on their 13 minutes’ worth of power plays (a full two of which came at 5-on-3), or denied the same to their hosts. This was the indisputable factor on which the outcome of this game pivoted.
You can point, one supposes, to the fact that Lowell also gave Vermont a five-minute major and the aforementioned two-minute 5-on-3 as being crucial as well, because again, it forced Lowell to use its best players in penalty kill situations, but frankly, it should have never come to that. Lowell should be able to handle a team that gives it 39 shots on goal long before Colin Markison scores midway through the third period. If Lowell actually came to play, that goal would have made it 4-1 instead of 1-1.
We will say, however, that Josh Holmstrom’s season-opening goal was a very nice play, the kind of thing reminiscent of last season that was never in enough evidence today. An aggressive forecheck by Joe Pendenza down low against Nick Paliotta coughed the puck up to Michael Fallon, who in turn centered for Holmstrom on a bang-bang play that Lowell tried to work about a dozen times last night and simply never connected on.
With all this having been said, we will add that there were more than a few things about which we can take some solace — just not enough for our liking. One thing that many critics pointed to as a problem for Lowell last season was a lack of physical compete level, but that wasn’t an issue tonight, as both teams were willing to play the body, and did so relatively effectively. It did cost Lowell, as three of its five penalties were for overly physical play (Joe Houk getting five and the gate for contact to the head which to us looked a bit more like “hitting too hard” a.k.a. “the Bobby Robins Special,” Josh Holmstrom for hitting after the whistle on a scrum in front of Vermont’s net, and Colin Wright for what is officially listed as “checking” but was called “charging” because he flatout ran UVM netminder Brady Hoffman). But still, if physical message-sending is something in which you are interested, this Lowell squad seems a little more willing than last year’s to provide it.
Further, the newcomers, of which Lowell dressed five, didn’t look very out of place. McGrath continues to impress even if he didn’t provide any offense, and Fallon obviously had the lone assist on Lowell’s only goal. Colantone was less evident but had some nice moments, and both Dmitry Sinitsyn and Houk were perfectly okay on the blue line, even if the former didn’t manage to put a puck on net with what we’re constantly told is a lethal shot.
Sure this outcome is something to build on, but more importantly, we hope, is that conceding a point against the worst team in the league at home is also something to stew on. It’s too bad they don’t have another game tonight to wash the stink off this draw. We want them out for blood in Colorado.