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Friday thoughts: Commitment issues

February 22, 2013

It’s starting to look more and more like the losses to Merrimack and Maine were a fluke and statistical correction, respectively, because Lowell took those two lumps — their first and only since mid-December — and then got right back to whaling on the competition in a manner that was both comprehensive and timely.

This win over BU tonight wasn’t like the raucous thrashing laid on Amherst on the road Friday, in part because it seems only Amherst is apt to give up those kinds of ugly decisions on their home ice. BU, for all its faults at this point in its spiraling season, is not nearly as bad a team as Amherst, but at the same time it has to be said that they were rather supplicant to the game plan Lowell brought to Agganis Arena for this pivotal league matchup.

Lowell, obviously, won 3-0 and pretty convincingly ran the game against a team with its previously-decent depth rapidly swirling down the drain, and its apparent will to actually compete against any team regardless of quality doing the same counterclockwise shuffle into the nearest sewer. Connor Hellebuyck can’t stop winning, Joe Pendenza can’t stop putting up points, but more to the point this team is just smothering its deeply demoralized opponents.

That’s the kind of thing we like to see.

While most rational observers seemed to have Lowell pretty well marked down in the win column before the game started, there was in fact that matter of the thing itself actually being played, and as with the first period against Amherst last Saturday, the predictions of a River Hawk romp seemed ill-founded. Shots through those excruciating first 20 minutes, in which almost nothing of consequence aside from a pair of ghastly Lowell power plays (something of a theme over the course of the night) actually happened, were a mere 7-4 to the hosts. And to give any of them credit for being troubling for Hellebuyck or Matt O’Connor would be to overpraise them to an obscene extent. It was ugly hockey, the kind only a mother could love, and even then we suspect that maternal affection would be best characterized as begrudging.

But Lowell continued to mirror the habits seemingly formed last week, scoring two goals in relatively quick succession as all four lines were able to better impose their will on the Terriers and business began to pick rather seriously up. One of those classic Lowell cycles got started by Josh Holmstrom’s line and pretty effectively pinned BU in its own zone for an extended shift that saw the River Hawks attempt four shots before Matt Grzelcyk was able to clear it after a block, but sadly the puck only got to center, and one particularly dimwitted Terrier had already gone for a change at just about the worst possible time. Joe Houk passed cross-ice to Chad Ruhwedel, who got the puck ahead to Scott Wilson, who bombed in a world-class slapshot off the crossbar and in on the near side, squeezing the puck into a space over O’Connor’s shoulder where it had little to no business being.

That was at 5:35 of the period, and the next shot attempt for either team came from Joe Pendenza 2:04 later, and also went in. On a quick rush to the net, Pendenza tried to center for AJ White who was streaking down the slot, but the pass hit two defenders and went in instead. Certainly not a pretty goal, but one you take all day long. At that point in the period, BU had attempted just four shots on goal, three of which went wide, one of which was blocked, and that was reason enough for Jack Parker to use his timeout. That helped a little, briefly, but BU didn’t really gain any kind of purchase in the game until it finally got a power play at 14:08, and though that obviously went for naught, it did lead to a lot of nervous moments in the last few minutes of a period that had otherwise been dominated by the visitors.

Lowell entered the second intermission with the lead, confident in the knowledge that it still hasn’t lost this season when doing so. Being up a mere two on BU is usually not reason enough to start etching anything into the win column, but these Terriers just seem so dispirited, and merely doing all the cursory things a hockey team does like pass and shoot and hit and occasionally defend, without actually putting anything behind it. This was a phoned-in performance if ever there was one, and you have to wonder whether this is going to lead to a fairly big crash. It’s just odd to see, especially after the team took three points in Orono last weekend.

The ice continued to take on a rather tilted palor in the third period as Lowell continued to dominate possession and draw penalties (though it must be said the two so often go hand-in-hand). And so eager were the Terriers to give Lowell man advantages, that even the ugly power play actually began to look good. Not only did Riley Wetmore finally score on the team’s fifth attempt — and really shouldn’t have because Steve Buco should have been in the box for a blatant slash on Grzelcyk that broke his stick right in front of the referee — but on the followup attempt, Lowell put another two shots on net and made Matt O’Connor earn the kill. Lowell finished the night 1 for 6 on the man advantage with just four shots on goal, and three of those came in the final 5:05 of the game; not especially impressive stuff, and something that needs to improve going forward.

But all this talk of offense goes without mentioning Lowell’s wet-blanket defense, which made the game no fun at all for BU. It finished with just 25 shots, compared with Lowell’s 27, thanks to a gorgeous collapsing coverage that baffled BU’s forwards and often left them completely isolated and without outlet options. Jack Parker spoke this week of Lowell playing an “old school” defense, the type teams employed when he was in college, and you would think that in the 40 or 50 years that have passed since, he’d have kept the knowledge of how to break down such a defense in the ol’ noodle. But you’d be wrong, because the BU player with the most shots on goal tonight was defenseman Ryan Ruikka, who had six, matching his total for the previous seven games combined. Not one line could figure out how to crack Lowell’s commitment to total team defense, and Hellebuyck picked up just about the sleepiest 25-save shutout you’re likely to see from inside that Fort Knox.

Lowell, it seems, is buying into what Norm Bazin is preaching. BU, it seems, is not interested in what Jack Parker is peddling at this late date. Which is why the River Hawks are 2-0 at Agganis Arena this season, with seven goals scored and just three allowed. And which is why BU fans should be at tugging their collars as this team plays itself right out of home ice contention.

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