Saturday thoughts: Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war
Dogs and hockey. What’s not to love? Lowell’s second (annual, we hope) Pucks and Paws night was as successful in the stands as it was on the ice. The River Hawks completed their second (annual, we hope) season sweep of Amherst in as many years, scoring a trio of goals in a back-and-forth second period that saw five scored in the span of 7:05.
Amherst rolled out Steve Mastalerz in net, the third different goalie to play against Lowell for the Minutemen in as many games. It’s understandable, really. We figure being victimized for at least a touchdown apiece once was enough for Jeff Tegila and Kevin Boyle — both rumored to have fled the country in a fit of hysterics at the mere suggestion of facing another 60 minutes against the River Hawks.
From a Lowell perspective, there was as much to love about the first period as there were things over which to gnash teeth. The teams traded embarrassing turnovers in the neutral zone again and again; however Lowell had the run of play for the first half of the period, pinning Amherst in their own zone for shifts at a time. The tide noticeably turned when Lowell went on the power play at 16:54 thanks to a gutless hit from behind by noted meathead Rocco Carzo. Simply put, the Minutemen were fantastic on the penalty kill. The River Hawks had no space to operate, and Lowell seemed absolutely befuddled as to how exactly they were supposed to make their required 12 precise passes before entering the offensive zone if Amherst kept getting in the way. If it hadn’t been happening to Lowell, we would have found it comical, but as it was, it was simply another piece of evidence that the Lowell power play remains atrocious.
Lowell managed to survive the period, despite the fact that everyone in the building could sense Amherst was destined to score if they had another minute on the clock. Shots stood at 7-6 in favor of Amherst, not that Connor Hellebuyck or Mastalerz were challenged much in the period.
The River Hawks started the second period much the same way they started the first, with plenty of pressure in the neutral zone and extended forays into the Amherst end of the ice. That all went to pot when Lowell was called for too many men at 5:23. We figured it would make perfect sense if Amherst scored there, being totally against the run of play and given Amherst’s prowess on the power play Friday night. Instead, Shanye Thompson did an excellent job of getting in the passing lane on the blue line and managed to shovel the puck ahead to a streaking Joe Pendenza, despite being tripped in the process. With the delayed penalty called, Pendenza drew the lone defense to him, made a perfect pass to Christian Folin who put the puck past Mastalerz for a 1-0 Lowell lead at 6:23.
Lowell didn’t connect on the ensuing power play, but did get a second chance a mere 31 seconds after the first one expired. Oleg Yevenko, playing the role of a less talented, less intelligent version of Rob Bellamy, was called for the first of his two penalties on the night, both of which should have gotten him the gate. Yevenko went knee-to-knee on Lowell forward Scott Wilson, lining him up from halfway across the ice. It was the kind of dirty play that could have easily put Wilson out of commission for a week or more, so of course Yevenko was only given two minutes for tripping. The River Hawks would make this one hurt. Scott Wilson, fresh from being assaulted, handled the puck beautifully and put it across the goalmouth where it was tipped by Arnold to the waiting stick of Riley Wetmore, who buried it for a two-goal lead at 10:06.
If you consider yourself a Lowell fan and are at all squeamish, please skip the following paragraphs. Down two goals, Amherst coach John Micheletto put out his number one line –his only scoring line, really. We don’t want to understate just how good this line is. In the two games against Lowell prior to this evening, the top of Michael Pereira, Branden Gracel and Conor Sheary accounted for three out of the five goals scored for the Minutemen. To date the line is responsible for 40 percent of Amherst’s goals, and that’s absurd.
Gracel and company charged into the Lowell zone and put on a cycling clinic. We had to constantly keep counting the Lowell players on the ice to make sure we didn’t miss a penalty on the River Hawks; it was that dominant. They scored only 38 seconds after the Wetmore goal, but it felt like an eternity. Pereira finally put the puck home on a funny bounce that saw it soar high in the air and come down behind Hellebuyck and into the net at 10:44.
Before we even had time to shake our heads and get to the tweets, the River Hawks got it back. Derek Arnold fired back a rebound as he fell to the ice, and beat Mastalerz just 26 seconds later. Amherst came back firing as well, though, again cycling circles around Lowell and keeping the puck in the offensive zone for most of the next two minutes. When the River Hawks were finally able to clear, it was only just long enough to get fresher legs on the ice for another Amherst assault.
The Minutemen clawed within one for what seemed like the 10th time on the weekend, thanks to the Gracel line once again imposing its will on the besieged River Hawks. Gracel fired out a pass from behind the net to a waiting Sheary, who teed off a frozen rope to the top right corner at 13:28.
That was it for the scoring, but there were plenty of opportunities for both teams in the third period. As the clock ticked on the Minutemen’s chances, the Lowell defense seemed to regain its clarity. Outlet passes that were intercepted all night were suddenly tape-to-tape and delivered with precision timing. The indecision that Amherst feasted on all night with a ferocious fore check was replaced by sound, resolute decision making that often left the Amherst forward deep in the Lowell zone with the puck going the other way.
With less than two minutes to play, Micheletto looked to pull his goalie in favor of the extra attacker, except Khrushchev had a better chance at making it past the Cuban blockade than Mastalerz did of making it to the Amherst bench. Lowell took control of the puck and put on a display of will and tenacity that was a hallmark of the team as recently a year ago. Amherst never made it past center ice (and decided to take another penalty to boot), sealing the win, the weekend and the season series from the hapless Minutemen.
In the end this was a win, and a good win for the River Hawks. They beat a team they’re supposed to beat, yes. However Amherst left it all on the ice last night, fighting for their playoff lives, and Lowell withstood everything they had and still came out on top. They’re not all going to be pretty. The River Hawks won’t win every shift of every game. But the fight they displayed tonight had us feeling pretty good about this team going down the stretch.
Amherst, we’re sure, is just thankful they won’t see the River Hawks again this season. Unless they meet in the playoffs, in which case Micheletto is going to have to scour the dorms for a fourth goalie to throw to the wolves.