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Friday thoughts: Helm’s Deep

January 27, 2012

And so it was that the mighty bulwarks of the Mullins Center were scaled, swarmed over and brought crashing down around their helpless defenders, all by an unlikely enemy many (reasonably enough) assumed didn’t stand a chance.

Lowell entered the previously invincible home of the UMass Amherst Minutemen as a team that was simply not very good on the road, the came out two hours and 19 minutes later with two points, an Alumni Cup and, hopefully, a bit of confidence about their ability to win away from the friendly confines of Tsongas Center.

It wasn’t pretty, of course, but things like this rarely are. It took a combination of attrition and good fortune and determination to truly salt away this season series.

Let us begin by saying that we are of course well aware of the tears being shed out west tonight over the job the officials did in attempting to screw Amherst out of the game, and fully expect that if the nearby Quabbin Reservoir were to ever run dry, the government would call on Minutemen fans to watch tape of this game so that the state didn’t become a desert overnight. Yes, Lowell got seven power plays in the game to Amherst’s two. And yes, seven is a lot. But you know what’s funny? We went back and looked at all the in-league home games the Minutemen have played this year and wouldn’t you know it, they’ve never gotten any fewer than five power play opportunities in those previous six games. Their opponents have averaged just 4.5. Only once in those games did Amherst have fewer power plays than its guests (vs. BC when it was 6-5 to the Eagles). So you can go right ahead and chalk that one up to regression to the mean and hopefully be done with it, because we never once heard during those previous six home dates that Amherst was being given too many undue power plays by obviously-corrupt officials out to twist the knife on their opponents.

Now that we’ve covered that issue, over which we still imagine there will be considerable eye-dabbing, nose-blowing and face-splashing, we can move on to talking about the game like adults instead of dejected children:

Things didn’t start out well for the River Hawks, as you might expect for a team playing its fourth game in seven days against a team that hadn’t played in a week. Amherst almost immediately drew a penalty, and then almost immediately scored on the ensuing power play. Just 3:16 into the game, Lowell was down a goal to a team that hadn’t been beaten at home all season long, by an opponent either in or out of Hockey East, and given that it was, again, terrible on Tuesday, we were already fearing this was a foregone conclusion, and that we’d have to sit through another 56:44 of torture.

But the goal against seemed to galvanize the River Hawks, rather than make them crumble under the weight of defeatism. It would be unfair and inaccurate to characterize the remainder of the period as “all Lowell,” but certainly the team made a case for itself, which is something few Mullins visitors can say. When the Minutemen get a hold of another team on their sheet of ice, they tend to choke the life out of them pretty effectively. But Josh Holmstrom scored on the man advantage with 1:04 left in the period to elbow out of that Roddy Piper-style sleeper. This was, of course, in no small part helped by Amherst’s insistence on taking penalties (and this is the last time we’ll say that we’re not going to get into a debate about whether the officials “handed Lowell the game,” because the fact is Amherst put one of the best teams in the country on seven power plays. What else did they think would come of that?), of which there were five in the period, four of which led to Lowell power plays.

But despite tired legs and thanks to several minutes of special teams play, Lowell found itself tied at ones with a team that is terribly difficult to beat at home, and had to feel glad for that.

It was during the second period when the true quality of both teams began to out, as even though the Minutemen held a 17-11 advantage in shots for the middle period, it was the visitors who had the better go of things as far as the number of quality chances, which in turn, lent itself beautifully to the number of goals. Lowell scored twice in that middle frame, with a beauty breakaway move from Joe Pendenza giving Lowell its first lead of the night, and Holmstrom’s rebound goal broadening that difference before eventually standing up as the game-winner.

Of course, the hosts did manage to acquit themselves quite well during this time, but found, as most teams do, that Doug Carr was simply not going to be conceding enough goals to make a difference in the end, no matter how many shots were tilted his way. But still, the 3-1 scoreline didn’t exactly fill us with confidence. That’s not because we believe the old wives’ tale that it’s The Most Dangerous Lead In Hockey as a general rule, but rather because we’ve seen Lowell blow a two-goal lead in the third period on the road to a team it should beat (Vermont!) and now flinch instinctively at the thought of such an awful thing taking place again.

Those fears were assuaged little by the hosts, fighting to keep their home record untainted by defeat, thundered out of the intermission and generally held Lowell without many good looks at the net. Of course, it should be noted that the same was true for their own offense, as they managed just one shot on Carr until Terrence Wallin took a penalty that put them on what should have been a pivotal power play. Carr stopped the first few shots he faced during that time, but with just eight seconds to go in the man advantage, Conor Allen cut the Amherst deficit to one goal. The nail-biting on our end began almost immediately thereafter.

Fortunately, our concerns proved ill-founded, as the River Hawks once again came alive following that Amherst strike. The River Hawks very much ran the remainder at the game in a manner reminiscent of its command third-period performances at Tsongas Center earlier this season, when they proved nigh-unbeatable to all who dared enter. This was the kind of resolve we haven’t seen from Lowell in the third period in some time — perhaps since the win at UNH — and that’s typified by David Vallorani’s insurance marker with just 26 seconds remaining.

You would think that a goal that late in the game, and on the road, would have been the result of the home team swapping out its netminder in favor of an extra attacker, perhaps coming as the result of a length-of-the-ice flip not unlike the one that proved Lowell’s undoing at Northeastern. But you would be wrong. It was sent past Steve Mastalerz because Lowell was pouring so much pressure, even that late in the game, at the Amherst net that Toot Cahoon never even got the chance to wave his goalie in.

That’s killer instinct, that’s how you win a game, that’s how you win a season series.

And hopefully, that’s how you wash away your road woes as well.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Monty permalink
    January 28, 2012 7:08 am

    Great win last night. A sweep would be so wonderful at this point …

  2. George permalink
    January 28, 2012 11:00 am

    On the bigger surface, most of the visitors have been chasing UMass and taking penalties and that’s why you came up with the stat you did. It’s not the disparity of penalties that counts as nobody is owed anything. It’s just what kind of penalty was called? Can you honestly say from where you were sitting in the Mullins Center that that was a fairly called game? We should always use “blame the officials” as a last resort and I think Lowell played a terrific road game. But any advantage the underdog had of using stamina to beat the 4 games in 8 days Riverhawks was negated as the Minutemen’s best players were killing penalties all night. Lowell’s weren’t.

  3. Rich permalink
    January 28, 2012 12:33 pm

    Lowell needs to put an exlimation point on this 9 day stretch by ending with 8 points. Who would have thought 3 months ago that Lowell would have 5 games in 9 days, including 3 on the road, and be 3-1 the first four with the last one at home? Lowell is so close to the elite status, and nothing but winning the next 3 games will put them there. If they can pull off those 3 wins, it will make the next 3 weekends very interesting. It could be the difference between finally having a shot at the end for the hockey east regular season title or trying to steal home ice heading into the last weekend.

    And about Amherst… They whine when they don’t get the calls but can’t accept the fact that they are a team of divers. Maybe Lowell did get one or two easy calls, but if I remember correctly at the Tsognas back in November the power plays were even and we still kicked their asses

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