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Saturday thoughts: Clash of the titans

November 22, 2009

We think it should be pretty clear by now that Lowell is the best team in Hockey East.

The River Hawks went down a goal to Merrimack, widely thought to be one of the three or four best teams in the league to this point, pretty early in the game and then said, “Enough of that.” The ensuing 53:16 after JC Robitaille’s goal was all Lowell and, more specifically, all Chris Auger.

In a career marred by what seemed to be one unfortunate injury after another, and just a general lack of complete play at times, Auger, Lowell’s only drafted player, may have come off as a bit of a disappointment. Career numbers of 8-21-29 coming into the year is not so good for what was a highly-touted player as a freshman.

But it appears last year served as a bit of a wakeup call. He came back from his injury around December or so and, while he didn’t exactly pour on the points, he scored the most important goal of Lowell’s season (a little overtime game-winner against Northeastern at the Garden) and played with a passion and work ethic that he often lacked in his prior seasons. He actually earned a spot in the lineup every night on more than just his reputation and above-average vision.

And this year that hard work is paying off big time. He had five points prior to tonight’s game which, while not unbelievable, is solid enough production and had him on pace for a career high in goals, assists and points. But then tonight happened and now we think all bets are off. He scored arguably the two most important goals of the game, Lowell’s second and third. His first put Lowell up for good, his second gave it some elbow room, and both were perfectly nice goals. The former saw him simply outwork a Merrimack defenseman to earn a second whack at a loose puck in the crease while Lowell was on a power play, and the second was just an absolute laser of a wrist shot, this time on a 5-on-3 power play. They were his third and fourth goals of the year, which ties his career high. In mid-to-late-November.

But the goals, and the second one, again, was a beauty, weren’t the impressive part. The three assists that came with them were just unreal. He sprang Jeremy Dehner for a somewhat clumsy but obviously effective breakaway goal that leveled the game at one a few minutes after Merrimack scored, then he sprang Paul Worthington for a beautiful breakaway goal that made it 5-1 that really, officially, strangled all hope from a late Warrior comeback like the one they almost mounted against BU last week. Finally, he connected with Worthington again, rifling a nice, crisp pass to the top of the crease, and all Worthington had to do is tap it past Joe Cannata.

Auger’s five points doubled his season total. It added to his career numbers by nearly 15 percent. He now has 11 career points in seven games against Merrimack. He was, in many ways, even beyond the scoreboard, the game’s most dominant player by far. There’s your TIIL POTW, no question about that.

But this brutal beating (and we know we say it every week, but Merrimack’s getting three goals makes the game look closer than it was in actual practice) was more of a team effort than we’ve probably let on to this point. After a shaky start in which neither team could really gain much in the way of meaningful possession, Robitaille did put the ‘Mack up a goal out of a scrum after his line played the first truly good shift of the game. And really, that was the last time the Warriors looked all that good. From then on, Lowell dominated the boards, transitioned the puck at will (two breakaway goals and all), and perhaps most importantly capitalized on Merrimack’s numerous mistakes.

Newsflash to everyone in Hockey East: the Warriors had the best PK in the league (or close to it, we can’t look it up now) and Lowell’s power play made it look just shocking. Auger’s first came about a minute and a half into the first power play of the game, and his second came 12 ticks into what was meant to be a two-minute 5-on-3. The man advantage ended 3 of 7 for the night. Against the best PK in the league. You simply cannot go to the box against Lowell if you want to win. The ‘Hawks have emphatically staked their claim as unstoppable if given any kind of advantage; 30.8 percent in-league? How do you stop that?

So overwhelmed by Lowell’s transition were the Warriors that Cannata, who did give up six on 26 shots, never stood a chance. They basically forced him to either make too many saves at once or else face down a Lowell shooter one-on-one. And while he was successful in the latter situation two or three times, you can’t count on any goalie on the planet to face six situations that are either breakaways or pretty near to and come out giving up less than two or three. With that said, the new plan has to be not giving Lowell six goals ever. Ever ever. This isn’t BC or BU’s clowncar defense where you can pop in a couple third-period goals because who really cares? This is Lowell. Lowell has the best defense in the league by far and that’s not even debatable. Lowell has the best goaltending in the league by a slightly slimmer margin, and that’s backed up by fact and science. And Lowell’s offense? Well, that’s lethal too, isn’t it?

Look at the stats page for Lowell. Seven players at 10 points or more. Think that’s some kind of coincidence? Lowell’s top line of Kory Falite, Scott Campbell (who had another very good night tonight, picking up a goal and two assists) and Joe Caveney matches up pretty well with most top lines in the league, we think. The second line of Ben Holmstrom between Auger and Worthington is almost as good as the top line. The checking line of Matt Ferreira, Riley Wetmore and Jonathan Maniff is probably worth more goals, both defended and scored, than any third line in the league. And the “fourth” line of David Vallorani between Mike Scheu and Colin Wright means your fourth line doesn’t stand a chance.

We came into this game thinking we might see proof that Lowell can be felled with conventional weapons. We come out maintaining that it is both irresistible force up front and immovable object at the back.

We’re waiting for someone, anyone, to prove us wrong.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 23, 2009 4:16 pm

    Just as an FYI, they awarded the second Auger goal that you mentioned above to Campbell. So Auger finished with a 1-4-5.

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