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Friday thoughts: Where to begin?

February 10, 2012

All week, the hype from both schools’ local newspapers was that this was The Most Important Game between Lowell and Merrimack in about three decades, and certainly since both climbed to Division 1. We were told that the long-dormant rivalry between these teams would be rekindled. We were tacitly promised that because of the teams’ spot within the standings, this had all the hallmarks of a fantastic game.

Right on all points.

Lowell and Merrimack tonight played in one of the most continuously enjoyable, high-octane, unforgiving, and nasty hockey games the Tsongas Center has seen in a long time. Maybe ever. And while Merrimack’s players weren’t being pelted with tennis balls during warmups, and there were no live chickens tied to Joe Cannata’s goal, one gets the feeling that the way things ended in Lowell tonight will leave lots of room for acrimony in the second and third games of this season series two weeks from now.

But for now, let us just take a moment to bask in the warm glow of this one, riotously entertaining as it was.

A quick look at these two teams on paper would tell even the layest of laypersons that these are two very evenly-matched teams and the first period carried that out to anyone who couldn’t be bothered to pick up the paper.

Both teams registered 15 shots, both goaltenders made a handful of top-quality saves, and neither side was able to notch its first goal. That was all fair. Doug Carr and Joe Cannata are arguably the biggest reason for both their clubs’ successes to this point in the season (we’ll also listen to your arguments for Lowell’s forward depth if you’ve got one) and in this heavyweight slugfest between the two best goaltenders in the league lived up to the billing. And while both faced and turned aside the same number of shots, the judges’ scorecards had to go to Cannata in the first period. A couple point-blank stops as the Merrimack defense routinely found itself under heavy pressure and occasionally even pantsed by the Lowell attack was the reason the hosts didn’t enter the dressing room up a goal or three. Carr was steady as ever but perhaps what makes him great is the unspectacularness of his nightly efforts. He’s square to every puck and almost never has to go lunging for saves, as Cannata did occasionally tonight. If you look up “positionally sound” in the dictionary, well, you won’t find an entry. But if there was one, Carr’s picture would be right next to it.

But on this night, through 40 minutes, he was being outdone by Cannata. The second period was like so many we’ve seen in Lowell this season: The River Hawks get the puck, and then they keep it on the other team’s side of the ice for nearly all 20 minutes. Shots at the end of the middle frame were 19-5 Lowell, running the total to 34-20 on the night. Carr could have taken a nap in his crease for all the action the River Hawks allowed Merrimack to direct toward him, though that was helped considerably by Merrimack taking its first two penalties of the game late in the period. And on the one the River Hawks gave up to Merrimack, they still outshot the visitors 1-0. Poor Cannata was facing more shots than the Hollywood bank robbery, but still bailed his team out repeatedly.

Carr, meanwhile, likely yawned lazily and had another squirt of Gatorade. It was that type of period. However, during the second intermission it was noted that Lowell was simply too dominant in attack for this to continue much longer. The only point at which he was troubled at all was on a power play, when a puck got past him and was originally ruled a goal, but had clearly been played by a high stick. Carr and a few other River Hawks pointed it out fervently and immediately, and the call was rightly overturned.

Unfortunately for the put-upon Merrimack netminder, no man can sustain the type of pressure Lowell was likely to turn on again in the third period — shooting toward its raucous and goal-starved student section — forever. And as it turned out, Lowell’s next shot, its 35th of the game at 0:55 of the third period, was the one that finally snuck past Cannata. And even then, it wasn’t his fault. Scott Wilson, who by the way turned in another sterling performance tonight, worked the puck behind the net with speed and centered behind him for Derek Arnold, who fanned on the initial shot but had the puck bounce and hit him in the shoulder as he fell, and trickled across the line. Unlike Merrimack’s would-be strike, the play was initially ruled a no goal, but fortunately, like that Merrimack would-be strike, the call was overturned. It was an unfortunate way for Cannata to have his shutout broken, but perhaps an inevitable one; if conventional weapons such as 2-on-1s, deflections, one-timers and breakaways wouldn’t beat him, goofy slow bounces might just be the way to go.

Merrimack, for its part, responded with its most intense hockey of the game and put Carr under a considerable amount of pressure. However, the numerous scrambles in front of the net all went for naught as Lowell defenders blocked a boatload of shots (nine in the third period, 20 in the game) and swept the puck away from harm just often enough. And try as Merrimack might, it was Lowell which again found a way to puncture the opposing netminders’ armor. This time, the goal came on a power play after a particularly ugly-looking board of Josh Holmstrom by Karl Stollery, and was directly off a draw. Riley Wetmore won it, Wilson fed a pass to the opposite point, and Arnold got all of it, beating Cannata five-hole, doubling the lead and all but securing two points given that there remained a mere 2:57 in the game.

However, the River Hawks also, as they did against Vermont last Saturday, seemingly insisted upon taking late-third-period penalties of their own, which made the result a bit more worrying than it needed to have been (though it was also during this time that Wetmore salted the game away with a shorthanded empty netter, so there’s that). This is where the aforementioned nastiness comes in. Merrimack grew frustrated with the pending result soon after the first Lowell goal, and there were numerous post-whistle scrums and even a few punches thrown. It had been foreshadowed in the second period when Malcolm Lyles got his helmet ripped off around the net after a Cannata save, but truly blossomed into full-on punch-throwing as the final buzzer approached. The worst of it came inside the last minute when there were four incidental minors handed out for hitting after the whistle, and then Mike Collins came in with a vicious cross-check along the boards that earned him five minutes and should have gotten him the gate or even a DQ, except that by that point the final buzzer had gone off and Lowell had a 3-0 victory.

It’s very likely that neither team will forget the events of the third period tonight, when a nice, hotly-contested hockey game turned ugly, and to its benefit. The River Hawks, as they tend to do at Tsongas Center, asserted their dominance over a very strong opponent and proved once again to be the better of any team who dare show up. In doing so, they pulled into first in both the league and the nation — something inconceivable in September — and put some distance between themselves and their Merrimack Valley rivals in the standings, both in terms of points and the tiebreaker, should such a thing be necessary.

This is, unlike so many others in the past, a Lowell team that Believes. It believes in its ability to be the best team on the ice in all aspects of the game, from penalty kill and power play to attacking, defending and goaltending. That’s because the team has given itself a reason to do so. Night after night, week after week, the River Hawks do all they can prove everyone but themselves wrong.

That’s why they’re the best team in Hockey East.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Monty permalink
    February 11, 2012 9:33 am

    I keep thinking “If this is a dream, don’t wake me.”

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