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Saturday thoughts: Them?

January 20, 2008

Suppose there was a hockey team that played about two hours west of Lowell.

Suppose, too, that it was nationally ranked. Suppose further that just last week it had been ranked fifth, having come off two wins against the No. 6 and No. 4 teams in the country. Suppose, just once more, that Lowell had to play them the night after a heartbreaking loss to Boston College.

Sounds pretty scary, right?

Nope. That team is the reeling, free-falling, generally unimpressive Minutemen of UMass. Ranked No. 10 in the nation, they came into Lowell one night after the River Hawks lost to No. 11 BC and generally looked, well, awful.

They’d lost two to No. 8 UNH a week ago and one to unranked Providence the night before. Certainly, UMass coach Don Cahoon would have his boys ready to go.

Nope. UMass came out flatter than a day-old, open soda can. Their first shot came almost halfway through the first period, on a power play. In fact, despite putting an incredible seven shots on net in that two-minute span, UMass managed exactly zero (we counted) shots on goal for the rest of the period. The Minutemen only attempted six other shots that period. Talk about embarrassing.

After that dismal first-period performance, which UMass was lucky to escape without allowing a goal, did Cahoon FINALLY get the boys fired up?

Nope. We were scratching our heads at this point. UMass didn’t put another shot on goal until just over eight minutes into the second period, when it went on its second power play in the space of four minutes or so. It seemed almost impossible that THIS team before us could possibly have been the one that media types deemed FIFTH BEST in the country. By the time the dust settled on that power play, and the game was literally more than half over, UMass had 12 shots, none of them at even strength.

The Minutemen were fortunate that Paul Dainton‘s* many miscues behind his own net didn’t hurt them. The frequency of his unnecessary giveaways was overshadowed only by the sheer bullheadedness it must have taken to continue to play the puck when he was turning it over so often. Were it not for a few timely saves and a few blown scoring chances, Dainton* and Co. would have been in a very deep hole.

UMass’ first even-strength shot of the game was what finally beat Nevin Hamilton, who made 20 saves and earned his fifth straight win. Appropraitely enough, given how bad UMass has been, it wasn’t even a good goal. Jordan Virtue lazily threw the puck at the net at a low angle, and it snuck through Hamilton at 11:09 of the second. UMass celebrated, but not for long.

Kory Falite answered with an important goal on a rush down the right wing, nicely picking out a corner over Dainton’s left shoulder. A pass from Ben Holmstrom sprung the sophomore sniper for his ninth of the year and third in as many games at 18:41. The teams went into the dressing room tied once more.

So now, tied at 1-1 against their archrival, the team that despite most reasons to the contrary has been historically superior to them in nearly every way, the Minutemen had to say enough was enough. They had to say, “We were ranked fifth in the country! Let’s get after ’em!” They had to have an answer for a largely listless Lowell team. They had to not lose their fourth in a row. Surely, they had to do something, anything.

Nope. Once again, the first UMass shot came almost midway through the period, and once again on the power play. Before that, Lowell out-attempted the Minutemen 13-7.

Maury Edwards finally broke the tie, scoring his second of the weekend and fifth of the year at 13:22, with Lowell on the power play. Holmstrom set that one up too. Mark Roebothan iced the game with an empty-net goal, also on the power play, at 19:43. Final shots in what should have been a desperate third period for UMass: 13-4 Lowell. That’s THIRTEEN to FOUR.

Look, it was great that Lowell was able to make such a plodding game look so easy in the third period, and certainly splitting with the 10th- and 11th-ranked teams in the country is a good showing, but let’s, at long last, be honest with eachother.

UMass is a flat-out bad team that lucked into some good wins earlier this year. There’s no other explanation for the three dismal showings they’ve produced against Lowell, or indeed for the entirety of the last two weekends. We’re sure Paul Dainton* is going to be a good goalie, and we’re sure James Marcou is the next (insert serviceable-but-not-overly-flashy UMass forward here), but they’re not now, and christening them as such was foolishly premature.

The fact is this: Lowell, despite rashes of injuries or whatever else, is and will be a better team than UMass for the rest of the season, and probably for the foreseeable future. The Minutemen proved nothing in three games with the River Hawks, apart from the fact that they can cough up leads in each of those games.

We were never sold on UMass, despite the various extollments from whoever-the-hell that this was the year. Newsflash: The year was last year. Accept no substitutes, last year’s Jon Quick-led team was as real a deal as UMass will get for at least this year and next.

Lowell, though? That’s the genuine article. Come-from-behind wins haven’t looked this easy in a long time. Home wins are coming in by the boatload. Situations that would have had the Tsongas Arena faithful gnashing their teeth in years past are now ho-hum mundanities, hardly worth worrying about.

Kory Falite, Barry Goers, Nevin Hamilton, Ben Holmstrom, Jeremy Dehner, Nick Schaus, Chris Auger, Jonathan Maniff — these kids are it, and these kids are only sophomores. Mark Roebothan is it. Maury Edwards is it. Scott Campbell is it.

The Minutemen, who face a surprisingly hot Vermont team next weekend, are not. For them, the misery continues, and their national profile drops like Wile E. Coyote after he walked four paces off a cliff and looked down.

Cue the slide whistle, Minutemen. Look out below.

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