Saturday thoughts: A tale of two teams
The one real takeaway from this game, apart that it was never for a second in doubt, is that this was perhaps the utmost example of the kinds of games Lowell has been playing since December started.
Everyone contributed in every way, it was a little tighter than we would have liked, Connor Hellebuyck was excellent, and Lowell scored two very opportunistic goals. It was quintessential River Hawk hockey. But we couldn’t help but think back, at various points throughout the game and in its immediate aftermath, about the other three contests against UNH, about which we heard ever so much in the last 24 hours.
It seems to us that those, too, were very much quintessential Lowell hockey for the team that showed up for the first two months of the season. Disorganized, overwhelmed, underwater. The difference we can see now, and look back on with somewhat cheerier demeanors, is obviously stark, and we think we actually owe UNH a debt of gratitude as a consequence.
We touched on it very briefly in the preview for this game, but you’ll recall that it was those final two losses to UNH, 5-2 the both of them, and even those scorelines flattered the River Hawks, which gave Lowell the divine spark it needed to realize playing bad hockey is bad and playing good hockey is good. So it was fitting, in a way, that in the same way that UNH slaughtering the River Hawks of old and giving rise to these new, world-beating boys, ended all the fun and games for Lowell’s opponents in the second half of the campaign, so too did Lowell end UNH’s season with this emphatic, suffocating performance.
This was just another dominant performance from opening whistle to final horn for Lowell, and very much in the vein of the BU game played just seven days ago. Neither team really did much to create any sense of offensive menace in the first period, and there was some nervous mumbling from fans about the ‘Hawks’ inability to clear the pucks out of the zone when UNH started pressing. We knew better. This is the kind of bend-but-don’t-break feeling-out process Lowell undertakes routinely, and if it’s going to lie in wait to pick its spots offensively during that time, then so be it as long as they don’t give up a goal while doing it. (And even if they do, as with two of the last three games against Providence and also against Maine, that also seems not to matter much, as this is a team that relishes in getting up off the mat.)
Lowell began to truly establish itself in the second period, putting a large amount of attempts toward net but not necessarily doing all it could to make Casey DeSmith work for the saves he was making. Not that Hellebuyck was really doing so at the other end, of course, because Lowell was once again putting on an exhibition in keeping the puck as far from the slot as possible. But Lowell was just unloading both barrels at every opportunity and UNH, depleted by injury up front as they were, had little answer for it.
Nonetheless, it seemed all that would go for naught, even as the Wildcats were held to just five shots in the period, until Scott Wilson finally broke through with a dogged effort at the side of the net. We’re not sure exactly how Connor Hardowa loses a player like Wilson at the side of the net for half a second, but that was all the space and time Lowell’s scoring MVP in these playoffs needed to score with 30 seconds left in the period and all but assure a victory. The River Hawks are now 18-0-1 when leading after 40 minutes, and that doesn’t seem like an accident.
We suppose the nice thing you can say about UNH is that the goal that sealed their fate at least didn’t deter them from putting on a good show of trying hard once again in the third, even if everyone in the building knew, in their heart of hearts, that none of it mattered. Lowell continued to clog up the middle of the ice as it does so masterfully, and without Kevin Goumas or Grayson Downing, everyone in a blue jersey seemed to be looking at each other as if to say, “Well, what are you going to do about this?” John Henrion, who scored two points last night and was arguably UNH’s best forward, was particularly guilty of this. Though he put four shots on goal in the game, it must be said that they were understandably weak, having originated from Henrion’s position in the inescapable depths of Chad Ruhwedel’s pocket as they did.
Adam Chapie’s goal to not only scorch the earth but till and salt it was a particular highlight, as goals in low-scoring affairs tend to be. We can’t imagine what either Brett Kostolansky or DeSmith were thinking on the play, but all evidence seems to suggest that it wasn’t in any way similar to, “I had better stop Chapie from scoring a truly embarrassing goal against us.” Chapie shed the check with relative ease as he broke toward the net from the left wing, and DeSmith’s idea to attempt a pokecheck makes one of Fred Sanford’s get rich quick schemes look well-prepared and thought-out. The shot was perfectly placed and made an already-decided game well and truly dead in the dirt.
Maybe the most “quintessential Lowell” event, though, came in the game’s dying moments. UNH pulled its netminder with about three minutes to play and spent more or less the remainder of that time in Lowell’s zone. After a few stoppages here and there, some of Lowell’s best defensive plays — Riley Wetmore, AJ White, Josh Holmstrom, Chad Ruhwedel, and Zack Kamrass — wound up stranded on the ice for nearly the final 120 seconds, and despite their total inability to clear the zone never allowed to much reason to panic. They were gassed, and when the final horn sounded, there was no wild celebration from those brave five, but rather some cheery arm-raising and perhaps some woo-hoos. That was all they really had the energy for.
But if you’re going to leave it all on the ice, then the final minutes of the game that sends your team to its first Frozen Four ever is a pretty good place to do it. Pittsburgh awaits. And doesn’t that sound nice?