Saturday thoughts: You ain’t got no alibi
Going into the game, we figured that, given how neither team had been particularly good all season, the effects of the badness of each would cancel each other out and in doing so make for a fun and entertaining hockey game. Woe be unto us, we were dead wrong.
This was a dreadful game. Boring, sloppy, often dispassionate. In furtherance of this point, let us reveal for you now that shots through the first 40 minutes of the game were actually 15-10, and even that followed a flurry of River Hawk chances at the end of the second period. However, despite the fact that it took Lowell about 35 minutes to actually look halfway decent in this game, there are still several positives to take from it, and not just that they won, and did so semi-convincingly.
Getting the two points here is obviously incredibly important. Not that taking just 35 percent of the available points in the first 10 games of the season is in any way an admirable end to the first half for Lowell, but that’s a lot better than 25 percent, isn’t it? Again, the math says that coming into this weekend Lowell needed something in the neighborhood of 24 points from its remaining 18 league games to likely secure the last home ice spot, so getting two from this one, against an admittedly abysmal opponent, was clearly very important. Oh, and Lowell only has five home games left against league opponents, which doesn’t do much to help the cause.
But with that having been said, we should note that this wasn’t any kind of emphatic 2-0 shutout win in which Lowell had a little bit of trouble solving Chris Rawlings but otherwise ran the game from its start to its satisfying finish. The result was often very much in question, particularly in the game’s early going when neither team seemed to have even the least interest in actually threatening to score. Through 20 minutes, the teams had a combined 11 shots on net, more through ineptitude on their end than comprehensive defense from the other, which made for some dreadful unaesthetic hockey that we wouldn’t wish on Amherst fans. We couldn’t have told you, really, who played better in the first period because that would imply that there were some sort of good quality to draw from what took place in it, and we cannot in good conscience engage in that kind of behavior.
That level of play continued for the majority of the second period, much to our chagrin. But then with a little more than five minutes remaining in the period, the Lowell team we expected to see pretty much all year actually showed up. At that point, Lowell had just nine shots in the game, between that and the end of the second period, it put together six more, including the Mike Colantone goal that ultimately stood up as the game-winner. It was a very nice passing play between Derek Arnold and Colantone to set it up (we think Ryan McGrath might have gotten a stick on the puck at some point in there, but that’s not what the box score says), and the finish was lethal. But Lowell prior to the goal itself, Lowell spent a good three or four shifts building to that point, wearing down Northeastern in the way the ‘Hawks did to many opponents last year. The fact that they did it for five minutes, instead of the shift or two at most we’ve seen in other games this year, is pretty encouraging, and may show that when it comes to beating up bad teams in the second half of the Hockey East schedule, Lowell might actually be in a position to do so.
Lowell’s second goal, early in the third period, came on something else we haven’t seen much of this season: A very pretty tic-tac-toe passing play. Scott Wilson, who was once again fantastic, skated into a bit of trouble in the middle of the slot, but got it to Riley Wetmore, who then immediately got it over to McGrath, who put it off Rawlings and into the back of the net to double Lowell’s lead and more or less salt the game away. Meanwhile, the wheels kind of came off for both teams defensively — or they got their feet under them offensively, if you want to to look at it that way — because after shots were 15-10 Lowell through 40, they were 15-14 Northeastern in the final 20. Not that the 15 shots were doing much to bother Connor Hellebuyck, who brought his A-game for his first league start.
He made 25 saves for his first career clean sheet, and several were of quality, but Northeastern also helped him out immensely with the kind of atrocious shot selection you would expect from a team that came in scoring 2.14 a game (and that slipped to an even 2.0 with this shutout). The most obvious of these was on a strong shift for Northeastern late in the third during which the River Hawks were buried in their zone for an extended period by the Huskies’ top line, and the puck flew to Vinny Saponari in the left faceoff circle from the opposite wing. Hellebuyck was coming across as quickly as he could, but the net was wide, wide, wide open. And Saponari elected to pass back into traffic. Nothing more came of the Northeastern attack for the remainder of the game, as you might imagine.
Another positive to take from the defensive side of the game is that Christian Folin continues to emerge as one of this team’s best defensemen. Obviously, no one can usurp the throne from Chad Ruhwedel, who remains one of the best in the league despite not piling up the points again this season (all one needs to understand this is to watch how effortlessly he rubbed out six or seven Northeastern forwards one-on-one in this game; the kid is for real), but if you put a gun to our heads and asked us to say whether Jake Suter or Folin is the second-best defenseman on this club, we’d have a had time coming up with a straight answer. Even beyond putting Braden Pimm on his wallet with a massive open-ice hit in the second period, which McGrath credited with really firing the team up, Folin has just played smart and comprehensive hockey these last several weeks and really established himself. He even showed off a pretty heavy shot in this one. There’s a reason he’s played nine games in a row now after sitting for three of the first four: He’s earned the everyday spot in the lineup.
This was a good enough game for Lowell after a terribly shaky start, and you can start to see the pieces maybe coming together somewhat. There’s still a long road to go before we consider this team to be playing anywhere near the massive expectations laid out for it, but wins are wins and as long as they keep coming — which they had better do on Monday — then we don’t have too much about which to complain. Two points from a Hockey East game. What a world.