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Friday thoughts: Lesson learned

October 19, 2012

Remember last week when we talked about how if Vermont had been any good it would have made Lowell pay, and pay dearly, for the way it approached that game? Well, Denver is any good.

The scoreline reads 5-1 and maybe isn’t reflective of the overall tightness of the game itself — we concede we say this a lot, but this was also a fact often remarked upon by Denver’s TV guys, so we’re merely keen observers of the game and not overly-apologetic homers — but nonetheless, anyone who watched this game cannot produce a cogent or credible argument that this was a game Lowell deserved to either win or draw. Blame another sluggish start. Blame the inability to capitalize on the stretch of really strong play at the end of the second period. Blame the fact that they were very clearly running on E about five minutes into the third period (and that’s where the trouble began in earnest). Blame the fact that Norm Bazin didn’t start Doug Carr for reasons we cannot begin to explain. Blame the team’s complete inability to produce anything on offense. Blame the altitude. Blame the defending. Blame the Hockey Gods. Blame whatever you want, but you can’t say Lowell deserved anything in the way of a result in Denver tonight.

Honestly, you look at five goals against on 28 shots and you say, “Well that’s a tough debut for Connor Hellebuyck,” but reality is a little different. Denver got a lot of high-quality chances and Lowell really hung him out to dry on the first, third and fourth goals, all for different reasons. On the first, Ty Loney just out-waited every River Hawk on the ice after he benefited from an ugly defensive-zone turnover by Dmitry Sinitsyn and roofed a gorgeous, gorgeous shot to stake Denver to a 1-0 lead at 9:23 of the first. On the third, Nolan Zajac took advantage of both the room created a remarkably dimwitted penalty by Shayne Thompson while Lowell was already killing a penalty and a very nice feed from Nick Shore to score a 5-on-3 power play goal at 8:35 of the final period. On the fourth, 1:17 later, no one picked up the trailer on a power play shoot-in that produced a bigger rebound than Hellebuyck likely would have wanted, and it was in the back of the net for another power play goal.

The second, a similar play to the fourth in which Hellebuyck made the initial save but coughed up the rebound a bit too far, and had it poked slowly, slowly, slowly through him by Dan Doremous, is one he’d probably like back. The same could be said of the fifth, on which a Lowell defenseman gave Doremous a little too much space on the right side of the slot, and Hellebuyck just got beat to the far post. Neither of those goals should have happened, but when your defense hangs you out to dry this badly in your first college game, you don’t have to look around too hard for other places to assign blame if you really want to.

What’s baffling, one supposes, is why Bazin started Hellebuyck at all. Carr came on in relief late in the third period, made five saves, looked sharp. So that, to us, says it probably wasn’t a fitness issue. Maybe you want to run out the young buck — forgive the pun — and see what he’s got. But when you’re choosing your starting goaltender on the road against the No. 7 team in the country, at altitude no less, maybe you start the kid who hauled you to the NCAA tournament for the first time in almost a decade and a half about seven months ago. This seems like needless tinkering, doesn’t it? You could make the argument for going to a rotation last season when Carr and Brian Robbins were both more or less unknown quantities, and even if Bazin stuck with that plan a few weeks too long (and eventually learned his lesson in the 5-0 loss at UNH), the thing is that there’s no mystery now, and shouldn’t have been prior to puck drop tonight. Doug Carr is Lowell’s goalie, and should be until he proves he shouldn’t be. Not the other way around. Not now. And how about this: If you have your heart set on starting the kid, why not do it against the opponent that is projected to be far weaker on Saturday? Granted, we didn’t almost win the Spencer Penrose last year, but this seems pretty entry-level stuff.

But apparently, so far, needless tinkering is the name of the game for these River Hawks. How else to explain that once again tonight, despite the inefficient and unimpactful performance against the Catamounts last week, Bazin once again held the potent combination of Derek Arnold, Riley Wetmore, and Scott Wilson apart to start the game. He abandoned the tactic a little earlier this time, giving them No. 1 power play unit time together in the first and finally joined them for good around the beginning of the second. But here’s the question, not dissimilar to the one about Carr: Why keep them apart to begin with, especially when doing so failed so spectacularly against a team that couldn’t stop bleeding goals last season in the first game this year? This River Hawk offense has, admittedly, piled up 77 shots on goal in two games, but the fact remains it has also only actually put two of those past the opposing goaltender. Both of them were scored by Josh Holmstrom (tonight’s coming on the power play, and clawing Lowell back to a 2-1 deficit, but obviously that was the closest it got). To be fair, we should note that Wilson finished the game with zero shots on goal, while Wetmore was excellent throughout and Arnold picked up the lone assist on Holmstrom’s goal.

Clearly, the offense hasn’t been good enough by any measure, even if it did get an elusive power play goal tonight and do a better job of drawing penalties. But what really concerned us is how you can draw another parallel between last week’s shameful result and this one: Lowell doesn’t look very well-conditioned at all. Wave aside how gassed they were in the third against Vermont as being a consequence of their having to kill all those penalties, okay. And wave aside tonight’s as being played a mile above the earth’s surface, sure. But this team has found itself sucking wind in the third period of its first two games of the season, and has a measly point to show for it. This really, really shouldn’t be happening against a Denver team that started the game with 11 forwards (and seven defensemen, obviously) and then had one of those attackers kicked out of the game in the first period for a blatant knee-to-knee hit. Denver played the vast majority of this game with 10 forwards — that’s three lines and an extra guy — and ran Lowell out of the rink.

How do you let that happen? Any of that, in fact? What was the quote Bazin had at the beginning of the year? Something about, “Publicity is like poison. It only kills you if you swallow it.” Well, it might just be that Lowell did indeed swallow what everyone fed them all summer about how good they were going to be, because everyone involved has come in woefully unprepared for the first two games of this campaign that was supposed to be another scorched-earth run to the top of the league table. We’ve seen nothing in these showings to convince us they’re capable, despite what our memories tell us about the team’s capabilities.

Everyone is back. The newcomers are quality. Nothing is going to change. This is what we were told, but this is not what has been delivered. Just a tie and now a loss, and we are likewise at a loss to explain why any of it is happening.

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