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Friday thoughts: A different world

March 3, 2012

We don’t have to tell you, dear readers, how good this feels.

Lowell in a home-ice spot for the first time in a decade? Lowell being able to climb as high as second if everything breaks its way? We’re still not sure what’s happening.

Just 12 months ago, Lowell was about to play a two-game set in Vermont already knowing it had been eliminated from playoff contention. Now, a slew of talented freshmen, a new coach, and a new belief later, these River Hawks are the first Lowell team to finish higher than fourth since 1996. It’s all so unbelievable and great.

But the way in which they accomplished their goal last night, of locking up a home ice spot and then, by way of a shocking Merrimack loss to Amherst, sealing up third place, has us thinking this team can make some serious waves come tournament time.

The game was, for all intents and purposes, over an even nine minutes into it. It was at that point that Derek Arnold got behind a Zack Kamrass pass on the power play and bombed it into the back of the net from the low left circle to make it 2-0 Lowell. It stood up as the eventual game-winner, but it wasn’t even Lowell’s most important goal during those early stages of the game. That belonged to Mike Budd, who was revelatory last night, after a prolonged bout of possession kickstarted by the Wilson-Wetmore-Arnold line.

About a minute and a half into the game, that line got the puck deep and kept it there on the cycle, then switched itself out in favor of Pendenza-Budd-Holmstrom while the play remained in the zone. If there was a way to give an entire line a secondary assist, they should have earned it. By the time it got to Mike Budd, also from around the same point as Arnold’s shot, incidentally, the Providence defense looked as though all it wanted to do was lay down and die. The reason this goal, which didn’t stand up as the game-winner, and could have just as easily been erased by the common Lowell problem of allowing a goal soon after scoring one, is that it established, with terrifying clarity, that this was a Lowell team driven to eviscerate its opponents.

We’re not sure whether it was the desire to rise to the occasion and leave nothing with regard to the team’s position in the standings to chance, or the desire to show up a team that embarrassed these River Hawks a few weeks ago, or a happy confluence of the two, but when the dam broke at the opening puck drop, the flood subsumed Providence before the Friars had a chance to get their waders on.

The Lowell power play added to the differential at nine minutes to really put the game on ice, and Josh Holmstrom compounded the hosts’ misery with a goal just inside of two minutes to go in the period and cemented what may have been the easiest victory the team has enjoyed since it clobbered Amherst 4-0 in Lowell. The stats tell the story: Shots through 20 minutes were 16-5 to the visitors, goals were 3-0, and all hope had been vacuumed out of the building (on PC’s senior night, no less) in nine minutes flat. Speaking of Friar seniors, by the way, Alex Beaudry, long a perplexingly persistent thorn in Lowell’s side, got the merciful hook during the intermission. He’s allowed eight goals in his last 40 minutes of work, having also conceded five to Boston College in that first period last Saturday.

When the second period began, the broadening nightmare didn’t get any easier for his relief. Just 1:09 in, Riley Wetmore put a shot from behind the goal line in off Justin Gates’ back to run the score to 4-0 and reduce any lingering belief in a Providence comeback to tinders. Not that the hosts gave up entirely. There was a stretch in the second period, during which they scored their lone goal, where you could almost see why they’d beaten Lowell 1-0 in that building earlier in the year. They certainly didn’t bring the sense of impending doom that successful Lowell cycles throughout the game did, but there was at least the ghost of a scoring threat hanging over their attacking zone. So when Ross Mauermann put his stick on the ice while the puck was behind the Lowell net, the whole game seemed to shrink for a moment. Anyone who watched saw what was happening, save for perhaps Doug Carr, who couldn’t have known what was about to happen. In that moment, all that mattered were Mauermann’s tape and Daniel New’s possession. He shook the puck loose of coverage and skittered a weak pass to Mauermann, who caught Carr moving laterally, then celebrated like he’d won the Super Bowl, World Cup and Daytona 500, instead of simply reducing Lowell’s lead back to three goals from four.

Both teams took penalties in the second period’s remaining minutes and during that time, the dominance shifted back to Lowell’s corner and stayed there for the remainder of the game. Even in Providence’s best period, it was only able to keep Lowell’s lead to three, and was still outshot 10-7. If you’re the River Hawks, you take that kind of bad period (“bad” being a relative term, obviously) every game all season.

Riley Wetmore doubled his total and set the final scoreline early in the third period with a bombed in one-on-one look that was in and out of the net so fast neither Gates nor the official that was within 15 feet of the goal really understood what happened. The shortest review in the history of hockey confirmed what all suspected: Wetmore had just made Gates look silly as he waved fruitlessly at a shot that would have beaten any goaltender on earth. With the time left in the game, Lowell took a few more penalties and, in stark contrast to previous weeks in which it had been fairly at odds with itself on the penalty kill, actually looked poised and confident and, you know, good. Obviously one thing you don’t like to see in all that is the final power play of the game getting the Friars six shots — fully a quarter of their final total — but despite there being six of them, it was important to keep in mind that none were of especially worrisome quality and, more importantly, the game was 5-1 with two minutes left or so, and therefore who cares?

The victory was wonderful, a command return performance of the Lowell team we saw hand out beatings like this regularly, and means so much to the program. And now, if they do it again tonight, these River Hawks will almost certainly earn themselves an NCAA tournament bid.

And who would have guessed that would happen a year ago?

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