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Saturday thoughts: Stay gold

February 11, 2012

We believe it was Ponyboy Curtis who once said something about Nature’s first green being gold.

It’s plain to anyone who has kept tabs on Lowell this season that their home form is something near-fantastical: It scores goals by the bushel and most nights concedes few, if any. In 12 home games this season, Lowell has put the puck into its opponents’ net a staggering 41 times. And in those games, it allowed just 18. One of them was into an empty net.

But no team is invincible anywhere. The River Hawks had rattled off 10 straight wins at Tsongas Center, with only their first home game of the season tarnishing an otherwise incredible run of success, but we had guessed that at some point in this, the toughest stretch of Lowell’s season by far, that record would fall. And it just so happened it came against Maine.

What is surprising, though, is how much this loss resembled the one on that late October night to then-No. 1 Boston College. Lowell had its opportunities against a goaltender clearly not playing the puck especially well but for some reason found itself wholly unable to penetrate the defense for the second-chance opportunities that have so long been a hallmark of Lowell’s hockey at Tsongas Center. And once again, their inability to score goals, and the opponents’ ability to capitalize on what few mistakes the Lowell defense made, spelled the difference.

And it wasn’t, as you might have expected, Maine’s big line doing the damage tonight. Spencer Abbott, Brian Flynn and Joey Diamond combined for just four shots — a figure eclipsed by David Vallorani on his own — and no points and only in very brief instances actually looked like the kind of 120-point strike force they’ve been all season long. But as good as Lowell was at shutting down that line, it allowed Kyle Beattie to have himself one heck of a game, scoring the game’s first goal on two failed clearing attempts (following what proved to be a costly high stick for the River Hawks in their attacking zone), and then setting up the game-winner on the power play thanks to an overly passive defense that left Matt Mangene wide open backdoor for a tap-in.

However, it was on that game-winner that Diamond made his biggest contribution; Lowell had clearly targeted him as the player that makes his line go, for whatever reason, and spent all night hammering him every time he had the puck. Offensively, he was the weak link on that line, held without a shot on goal, but Colin Wright was perhaps a little too eager to hit him in the neutral zone and the check resulted in an elbowing minor that led to the game-winner.

But it’s not as if Lowell didn’t have its chances. Dan Sullivan, loath though we may be to admit it, was actually pretty decent tonight when he had to make important saves. He stopped the few clean looks he saw (and was helped immeasurably by Steve Buco putting one of those clean looks right into his bread basket in the second period). Did he cough up the puck more than a few times on relatively easy shots, leading to scrums that surely caused some of the Maine fans in attendance to pack on a few extra grey hairs? Sure he did. He’s Dan Sullivan, and he’s not very good. Did he also get lucky that Derek Arnold bombed one off the crossbar? Of course. But at the end of the night he stopped 33 of 34 and that’s good enough to beat just about anyone, in just about any building, regardless of their position in the PairWise.

The issue, as we alluded to before, is that the River Hawks’ compete level around the net was often not where it needed to be. Not that it was bad, but it wasn’t good enough. We think they’d agree with that. And with that having been said, let’s note that Lowell’s only goal of the game, scored by Wright after he plucked a bouncer out of a netmouth scrum, regrouped a few feet out and evened the score at 1-all late in the second period, came as a result of that compete level. But there, and only in a few other limited spurts, was it fully in evidence. That is, you’ve likely come to understand at this point, wholly uncharacteristic of Lowell hockey under Norm Bazin and something that we expect will be addressed in practice all throughout this coming week.

One thing we would say is a point of concern is that these days, Lowell simply doesn’t draw as many penalties as it used to. Two tonight. Four last night. Five the entire weekend against Vermont. We’ll concede that drawing penalties is not necessarily a thing you can just do. It’s not a skill. But it’s often evidence of hard work, and it rewards you not just by giving you a better chance to score for two minutes, but also by adding minutes for the other teams’ best players in tougher situations.

Let’s be perfectly clear here: If we were to tell you that Maine comes to Tsongas Center, and the Abbot line is held to just four shots, and Maine scores just two goals, and is limited to only two power plays, and Sullivan faces 34 shots, a good 90 out of 100 times, those circumstances convene to end in a Lowell win. This happened to be in that bad 10 percent. That’s hockey.

But right now we have an awful hard time finding things to complain about, as we’re sure you’ll understand. Over the last three weeks or so, Lowell started in earnest at chiseling away at its numerous games in hand on nearly every team in Hockey East, playing five games in eight days among other things. And during that stretch of nine games, all of which were against league opponents, Lowell lost just two of them. During that stretch, in which it burned through all those unplayed games and caught up with the pack, it catapulted to the top of Hockey East and now seems a lock for an NCAA tournament bid barring a total catastrophe. This loss tonight doesn’t seem the harbinger of bad things to come. Things to work on? Certainly. But this is a frighteningly good team that has proven time and again it will give any team it plays a game and far more often than not, emerge victorious.

Result tonight aside, we can’t help but look hopefully to next weekend. This team has given us no reason to doubt it.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Rich permalink
    February 12, 2012 6:37 pm

    What I got out of the game is that Maine was a desperate team. They lose that game and they are in tough shape for home ice. So I think that desperation outmatched Lowells normal compete level. Plain and simple, lowell needs to go 4-2 to be at least the #3 seed in hockey east, and unless BC wins out it could also launch them to the #1 seed. This is a team poised to do some damage in the playoffs. Anyone else rooting for us to face Amherst and make it 5-0 this year?

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