Thursday thoughts: Too young for mercy
This game was a blowout.
People are going to try to tell you different, but no, this was not all that close. It looked a lot like what you’d imagine a one-seed playing an eight-seed might look. Shots ended up being 36-26 to the hosts, and Maine only got broke double digits in the third period when the game had already spiraled out of control and right down the drain.
The 4-2 win, convincing and thorough, moves Lowell within a game of the Garden, because Maine was everything anyone with a pair of functioning eyes this season thought they would be. The same is true of the River Hawks, which is why they ended up scoring four times and allowing just two, one of which came in the very definition of garbage time.
For one thing, the Black Bears took about as many dumb penalties as you might expect a team captained by Joey Diamond — who spent a good portion of the night either in the box, trying to goad Lowell into a penalty and largely failing (more on that in a minute), or falling down at the slightest contact as is typically the case with Joey Divemond — would take. The problem, at least in the early going, was that Lowell was taking more. Shots in the first period ended up being 13-9 for the River Hawks but fully one-third of those Maine volleys came on the team’s two power plays. The second of those opportunities also gave Maine its only noteworthy goal of the night, as Jake Rutt put a shot in off the post and then Hellebuyck’s back to open the Black Bears’ postseason account at 13:52 of the first period.
So the River Hawks trailed 1-0 to a team that had done little to impress in the period (and in fact gave up 17 attempts at goal in the 16:03 of the first played at even strength), and there seemed to be a lot of collar-tugging going on for the folks around Tsongas Center. This looked a little too much like a replay of last weekend’s home game against Providence for anyone’s liking, as the opening 20 in that one featured similar dominance from Lowell but also a similar deficit.
Things didn’t get any easier when Riley Wetmore and Adam Chapie both went off for penalties before the first 30 minutes of the game ended, but Maine did little to impress on those two chances, conjuring just four attempts toward goal and getting half through to Hellebuyck, who was solid as ever all night. And at that point, we started to say to ourselves that all Lowell might need to get back into the game was for Maine to commit one penalty, and wouldn’t you know it, the senior leadership came through for the Black Bears once again. A Kyle Beattie trip near the end of Chapie’s minor gave Lowell its first power play, and though little came of it, the Joey Diamond roughing minor that soon followed afforded Lowell a few more looks at the net, and when Beattie went off for tripping about two minutes after Maine killed off the previous penalty, the game pretty much ended for all intents and purposes.
It took all of 15 seconds for Lowell to move the puck around while Josh Holmstrom fronted Martin Ouellette, and Scott Wilson looked for all the world like he might try to pass it Riley Wetmore at the center of the box. Instead he shot through Holmstrom’s screen and beat Ouellette for the first, but certainly not the last, time in the game. The goal was reviewed just to make sure Holmstrom wasn’t in the crease (and of course he wasn’t), but the game was very quickly 1-1. Wilson, by the way, was by far the best player on the ice all night and routinely did a lot all by himself to generate scoring chances for Lowell; one in which he dangled through a few Black Bears and found Terrence Wallin, who in turn got it to Michael Fallon right out front for a shot attempt that went over the net, stands out as being particularly spectacular, and indicative of the skill level, vision, and menace Wilson brings on a nightly basis.
With the period winding down and the Black Bears no longer leading, things got a little testy, as they so often do when Diamond is involved. When the final buzzer sounded, he started to get into it with Chad Ruhwedel, and both ended up being assessed two-minute minors for hitting after the whistle. Under normal circumstances it might seem unwise for Ruhwedel to take a matching penalty against anyone, as the tradeoff isn’t likely to favor Lowell, but Diamond is Maine’s best offensive player by any measure of distance you care to mention (yes, including light years), so maybe it wasn’t that dumb. More important, though, is that this matching-minors situation led to two minutes of 4-on-4 hockey, and proved the game’s turning point.
So we suppose we have to thank Joey Diamond for being so dumb as to give Lowell the opportunity to showcase its overwhelming skill and ability to crush a team’s throat when it starts to lock a game down. You take Chad Ruhwedel going to the box for two, we’ll take Christian Folin ducking down from the right point and heading toward the net like a runaway train. His shot attempt didn’t go in, but it did sit tantalizingly at the top of the crease, and Wilson was there to give Lowell the lead it never surrendered at 1:52. Then, with Diamond back on the ice after serving his now plainly-ill-advised penalty, Joe Pendenza doubled the lead and everyone had a good laugh at how quickly the game had unraveled for the Black Bears.
At that point, we were fully confident the game was in hand, and Joe Houk’s hooking penalty afforded Maine that generated little in the way of actually threatening chances. When Beattie went off for a hook of his own as he tried to prevent Houk from scoring on a breakaway as he stepped out of the box, we felt Lowell was likely to pile on the misery. We were, as always, absolutely right. Josh Holmstrom tipped home a bombed-in Chad Ruhwedel slap shot from the middle point and we just about doubled over. Three goals in the space of 5:37, and made only that long by a Lowell penalty. The game was over with 13:31 to play, and only a totally meaningless extra-attacker power play goal from Devin Shore with 48 seconds left changed the actual scoreline.
It might have taken a bit for Lowell’s tires to find purchase in the muck and mire of all those early penalties, but once they did the Black Bears got run over. Such is the disparity in quality between these two teams, no matter what the prognosticators predicted for this one. If anything, Ouellette turned in a credible enough performance that the game wasn’t a total blowout on the scoreboard as well as on the ice. Anyone who watched this game once things actually settled down and got visions playoff series past in which Lowell was handled easily by these Black Bears is a delusional paranoid living in the past.
It’s 2013. Lowell has now won 47 games in the last two seasons. Maine took down 11 this year, even if two were against these same-but-not-really River Hawks. Their season ends tomorrow, and everyone will have all summer to talk about how hot they were, at least before they came down to Tsongas Center and got their teeth kicked in.