Friday thoughts: Go for the throat
What we’re starting to see from Lowell these days, and what should fill the rest of Hockey East with mortal dread, is something that the team so often lacked in earlier stretches of the season.
That would be its killer instinct. While it’s true that Lowell has a 14-0-1 record when leading after two periods (which it wasn’t doing through 40 tonight), we wouldn’t really say that we’ve seen the team take over close games very often in the third period. Can it smother the life out of them? Absolutely. With the best teams in the nation. But when it comes to actually being able to twist the knife, that’s a skill Lowell hasn’t really put on display until the last two games or so.
In much the same way that it never let BC scramble back into Tuesday’s contest, it never allowed Merrimack to gain any purchase tonight, but then that was the name of the game from its very beginning. But once Lowell finally broke through, on its first truly impressive shift of the game, as a matter of fact, it very quickly turned a squeaker into a laugher, and the instant the second goal was scored, the remaining 11:30 was academic.
Things didn’t look so easy through 20, as Lowell was being outshot 11-5, which is no proud state in which to find oneself on home ice. It wasn’t so much that Merrimack carried play to that extent in the period — we think their first shot at even strength came somewhere around seven minutes into the period — but rather a function of both teams playing it extremely tight, and the Warriors having the benefit of two rather deserved power plays to Lowell’s one; and as you might expect that one given the quality of the River Hawks’ man advantage of late, wasn’t all that impressive. Connor Hellebuyck stopped all 11, obviously (this is inferred by his picking up his fourth shutout of the year, and second in four games), but really wasn’t asked to do all that much once again. Lowell did an excellent job of stopping the attempts Merrimack was getting, and vice versa.
That continued into the second period as well, with Merrimack once again outshooting its host, this time by the more modest margin of 10-8, but also getting what was unequivocally the game’s best chances on a power play late in the second period. A scramble in front of the Lowell net led to mass confusion and three or four River Hawks joining Hellebuyck in the crease, and somehow the puck wound up on Shawn Bates’ stick. His shot was saved, but cleared to an area at the side of the net where Quinn Gould had camped himself. Hellebuyck moved over at the last second, and as Gould tried to lift it over him, somehow got a piece of it. But still chaos reigned, and Gould gathered the puck again, and fired for the second time. That shot beat Hellbuyck, but bounced harmlessly off Jake Suter’s chest and up to a forward who cleared. A stoppage a few seconds after that brought the massive crowd at Tsongas Center to its feet in appreciation, and the adulation was richly deserved. Merrimack got no closer to scoring than it did there, even if things briefly got a bit dodgy in spots here and there after that.
That was it for the first two periods, though: Very tight, but not necessarily tight-checking. Teams were getting turnovers but not doing much with them. However, just as it is unwise to mess around with Big Jim Walker of 42nd Street, it is equally inadvisable to invite Lowell to play a game filled with neutral-zone turnovers. If there’s a better team in the league at taking the puck the other way and generating chances from the sudden possession, we haven’t seen it grace Hockey East this season. And indeed, Lowell’s first goal, from Adam Chapie (who otherwise had a forgettable night with no other shots on goal), was the result of just such a chance. Lowell got the puck, got it deep, and went to work in the corners as it so often does. The Scott Wilson line worked a small number of looks, kept the puck in the zone and got off for a change. Then, a failed clearing attempt came to Jake Suter, who meandered down the right wing to the goal line and centered for Chapie, who was tied up in front. How Chapie was able to redirect the puck at a pretty decent speed up and over Sam Marotta while being shoved in the opposite direction is tough for us to guess, but then we don’t want to ask too many questions about such a show of dominance in the attacking zone, particularly given how rare such an occurrence was throughout the night.
So that was Lowell up a goal at 5:50 of the third period, and one had to feel good about its chances for, as we mentioned, clamping down on the Warriors even more impressively than it already had — the visitors had 31 shots on Hellebuyck throughout the night, but 10 of them came on the team’s five power plays, none of which scored — which would have been saying something. But instead, Derek Arnold decided to twist the knife just 2:40 later, heading to the net and redirecting a speculative-at-best effort from Ryan McGrath at the top of the left circle. He seemed surprised as anyone in the building when it dipped into the side of the net, but he sure wasn’t complaining. At that point, Lowell really and truly put the game into the vices, and you see the result for yourself.
Merrimack pulled Marotta with about three minutes left, desperate to get points from a game that just minutes earlier had been shaping up to be Lowell’s first scoreless draw since 2007, and it didn’t take long for Arnold to strike again, this time from behind the red line, to officially shatter all hopes of a Warrior comeback, faint though they may have been to begin with. With the game now broken wide open, it seemed the goo inside was comprised entirely of Merrimack’s brains, and probably its hope for winning the regular season title, but all that was leaking slowly down the drain while the River Hawks just laughed. In furtherance of the joyous atmosphere that had so suddenly gripped the home team, Colin Wright scored his first goal of the year into another empty net with 1:27 to play, and Mark Dennehy deemed the game good and over at the point, leaving Marotta to twist in the wind until the death.
Obviously this was an important win for the River Hawks, over their nearest neighbors on home ice before another massive crowd, one which gave them the second consecutive 20-win season for the first time in the school’s Div. 1 history, and moreover all but solidifying another NCAA at-large bid. They’re also still tied for first, but with only Boston College by virtue of the Eagles having beaten Providence down at Schneider Arena, and UNH inexplicably tying Amherst. The road still twists on, as three games remain against admittedly tough opponents, which have had Lowell’s number more than most teams in its recent history. But that winding road is nearing its end, and Lowell’s hopes at improving on last year’s performance look to be in good shape.
Put another way: We wouldn’t want to have to play these guys.