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Friday thoughts: If you go when the snowflakes fall

January 4, 2013

Lowell’s best period was also its worst. It more or less dictated everything to the hosts in the first 40 minutes; pace and flow were fully at Lowell’s command, possession came with ease, penalties were drawn like water from a well. But the goals just wouldn’t come.

In fact, Lowell trailed for the vast majority of the first two-thirds of the game, as Clarkson’s Andrew Himelson scored on a relatively weak wrister from the blue line that no one in the building, least of all Connor Hellebuyck, expected to actually go in the net. And despite that goal at just 3:55, Lowell kept its composure and put the Golden Knights very much on their heels for the next, oh, let’s say 40 minutes. Lowell rained shots at  Greg Lewis, who dutifully stopped all of them, and the defense on front of him cleared away the vast majority of pucks that could have potentially turned into second chances. This was eerily, and frustratingly, reminiscent of earlier Lowell ventures, in which it put up 30-plus shots a night but did very little to generate actual quality in those shots. Shots through two periods were 23-13, and even that felt a whole lot like the home scorekeeping getting a little generous to their own team’s total.

Even Clarkson’s radio guys, cloyingly homeriffic though they may have been, had to concede that Lowell was thoroughly dominating the game. Once Lowell drew a penalty to negate one of their its late in the second, the play-by-play man noted that Clarkson would do well just to get out of the period. And indeed, the break seemed to be a good point for the hosts to regroup; they came out the far better team in the third, and outshot the River Hawks 13-7, nearly the exact opposite of the previous period. However, it was also during that final 20 minutes that they were outscored 2-0.

Again, if you went into the game looking for something to complain about with regard to the River Hawks’ approach, it’s that they weren’t getting guys to the net to take swipes at the rebounds and that the power play once again lacked the kind of eponymous oomph the name might imply it should have. Having 23 shots in the first period is all well and good but not too many were enough to make Lewis sweat, and Lowell was 0 for 6 with the man advantage. Troubling stuff.

But on the other hand, it’s pretty hard to argue against the team having allowed just three goals in the last four games, all of which they won. Whatever defensive lapses were an issue at earlier parts of the season — albeit against far more difficult opponents — have all but evaporated, as Hellebuyck is looking very much like the kind of goaltender Doug Carr was last year. Nothing worries him, everything goes more or less as it should (except we’d like to see just one or two fewer rebounds kicked out into the slot, but again, that’s if we really want to nitpick). His having allowed just one goal in his last nine periods of hockey has been a very impressive tour de force as long as we’re willing to acknowledge once again that this was against Northeastern (bad), Harvard (worse), and Clarkson (somewhere in between). His GAA now stands at a paltry 1.51, and his save percentage a towering .943. He, like Carr, isn’t getting much run support (the River Hawks have scored 13 in his five starts, but five were against Harvard), but it’s tough to argue that they’re not doing all they can to win those games. The kid’s 4-1-0, and as much as we hate to count Goaltender Wins as a stat, you have to think it’s at least enough to warrant running him out until he has a bad outing. He hasn’t had one since the Denver game, and even that wasn’t really his fault. You can’t say the same for Carr, who has had more bad nights at the office than good this season; his stat line alone is reflective enough of that.

Anyway, as for the Lowell goals, both were of the “nice” variety. The first came on an enterprising little jaunt through the attacking zone by Christian Folin, though you might have expected his first collegiate goal to be a bomb from the point. But no, he took the puck down to the goal line along the left wing boards then swung back through the bottom of the circles and shot, uncontested, to the far side of the net. The Clarkson feed didn’t have any replay and the announcers gave little indication of what actually happened, but it looked like Lewis was screened out a little bit and perhaps didn’t expect a shot to come from there at all. It was very well-placed, and drew Lowell even at 4:30 of the third period. Clarkson started to take over a little bit after that, and in fact did so in such a way that, after a successful penalty kill was followed by a particularly long bout of possession from Clarkson, Bazin called his timeout. That seemed to enliven something in the River Hawks, and while the hosts were still maintaining the better possession, Lowell’s increasingly occasional forays into the attacking zone were at least becoming economical and more dangerous. Ryan McGrath hit a crossbar, and eventually, a gorgeous feed from the left wing by Colin Wright to Michael Colantone, who was streaking into the slot, led to the game-winner. That was a very nice play indeed, and ensured for Lowell the victory the first two periods made appropriate and deserved.

We would be remiss, however, in not mentioning that as with the Bentley game, Lowell still took a penalty inside of two minutes to go despite being up a goal. This time it was McGrath going off for an iffy trip, but as with the first three power plays Clarkson mustered, the defense and goaltending held strong enough that the threat of an equalizer was minimal at best, despite the fact that it was played at 6-on-4. Hellebuyck only had to make two saves in that final 1:34 to preserve the game.

It’s getting increasingly tough to argue with the team’s defensive wherewithal, and if the offense ever gets going — this was the second consecutive game in which nearly all of the team’s top two lines didn’t register a point — then this team might just have something here. But this is also a Lowell team that has won its last four games and regardless of opponent quality, it’s tough to act like that’s anything less than outstanding. Pick up another win tomorrow night and we’ll be feeling really great going into the truly important hockey: The league schedule.

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