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Tuesday thoughts: That’s that

February 27, 2013

In much the same way that Lowell went into Boston University’s home rink on Friday and dictated everything about the game, it did the same against Boston College tonight. Now, obviously, the difference between the two scorelines (4-2 with an empty netter tonight, 3-0 a few days ago) in those respective games is that Boston College is designated as a very good hockey club, while Boston University still has a way to go to reclaim that status, which we would have lent it, say, prior to the turn of the new year. But nonetheless, Lowell told both exactly how the games would be played for the entirety of their 60 minutes.

The fact remains that Lowell went into both Agganis Arena and now Conte Forum and thoroughly bossed around both teams in a manner befitting a side that is now tied for first in Hockey East, and winners of 15 of the last 18 contests in which it has participated. The amount of things Lowell did well on this occasion, a rather important one in the context of the remaining season as well as the team’s hopes for making the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year, is difficult to list all in one go, but we’ll give it a shot nonetheless. Suffice it to say, before we continue, though, that this was maybe Lowell’s best win of the season.

Let’s start with the very basic fact that as it did with BU a mere few days ago, Lowell absolutely shuttered anything the Eagles wanted to do tonight; first and foremost it allowed just 24 shots in 60 minutes against a home team that is supremely talented (moreso than anyone else in the conference by a considerable margin) and had to have been determined to pull out a victory here given the massive implications such a matchup had for the remaining four games of both teams’ schedules. A BC win would have catapulted the Eagles to first in the conference by its lonesome with 30 points to everyone else’s 28, and might have even served to bury Lowell’s hopes for home ice, though the chances of that seem somewhat slimmer. Instead, the River Hawks smothered the formidable BC attack in a way that few teams have all season, which apart from that 6-3 drubbing several months back has become somewhat de rigueur. How about the fact that despite giving up six in that one middle meeting between these teams, BC only scored nine goals on Lowell in three games? It’s not a great number, obviously, but if you would have said to us at the beginning of the year that BC would score just one and two goals in two of the three contests in the season series, we’d have taken that walking away.

A big part of the reason Lowell won this game tonight — and perhaps the biggest part, now that we actually write it down — is that Chad Ruhwedel was more often than not matched up across the blue line from BC offensive nightmare Johnny Gaudreau. Ruhwedel is, in our opinion and therefore inarguably, the best two-way defenseman in the conference by a decent enough margin that any suggestions you personally might have for the job are sufficient to be considered laughable. And he spent so much of the night silencing Gaudreau, who has a near-criminal amount of points and that’s even with the benefit of having left for World Juniors in late December and early January, that we don’t know where he found the time to squeeze in a pair of points and ring a shot off the crossbar. Gaudreau spent most of the night firmly in Ruhwedel’s pocket without hope of escape, and apart from hitting a post himself in the second period, did little to nothing in this game. The only notable thing he did was not be in any way notable, and this was typified by a play in the third period in which he got the puck by himself on the wing and looked to take on Lowell’s famous No. 3 one-on-one. It did not go well; Gaudreau, accustomed though he may be to torching opposing defensemen in this fashion, was forced to the outside and took the scenic route around the net, where Ruhwedel squeezed him off the puck and forced a turnover so easy that even Brooks Dyroff wouldn’t have bungled it too appreciably. Calm, cool, casual. That’s Ruhwedel’s night at the office in a nutshell. You wouldn’t have known for a second that the best offensive player in college hockey was lining up across from him. It literally didn’t matter at all.

Another reason Lowell picked up the disconcertingly easy W tonight is that it stayed out of the penalty box. BC had just one power play on the night (and okay yeah the puck wound up in the back of the net) but the fact of the matter is that if you’re only giving the Eagles one chance with the man advantage, then that’s going to be a big help. Contrast that with the power play back in the last game at Conte, on which BC scored thrice, and you have a pretty clear recipe for success. On the other hand, Lowell had just four power plays, which isn’t a lot itself, but on the first two, the ‘Hawks looked absolutely lethal. The first one scored, obviously, on a gorgeous shot by Scott Wilson that we’d like to frame and hang on the wall and just look at sometimes with our hands on our hips and sigh appreciably at it and then go about our days more fulfilled than we otherwise might have been. That kid is something else, having now scored three goals in as many games, and generally having turned in one hell of a performance tonight even if his linemates (Terrence Wallin in particular) didn’t exactly lend themselves to top-shelf outcomes. We will say, though, that Wallin made a couple of rather crafty plays including a turnaround backhand pass into the slot from along the endboards in the third period that unfortunately went for naught. We are baffled as to how, with plays like that up his sleeve on a seemingly nightly basis, Wallin only has seven points this year after netting 25 as a freshman. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense but the upside is obviously there.

Speaking of upside, we come at last to a freshman goaltender for whom high-quality, 23-save performances against one of the best offensive teams in the country is now the norm, rather than the exception. Connor Hellebuyck wasn’t really asked to do a lot tonight, as a consequence of the Lowell team defense tightening around the BC team offense like irresistible tentacles. The few saves he had to make he made with little trouble, and the two pucks that got by him weren’t really all that his-fault. On the first, Billy Arnold got lost in coverage and Travis Jeke (whose surname perpetually seems to be spelled incorrectly) found him with a nice little pass. And on the second, Arnold again found himself in space and the shot trickled through. Still, though, you can’t scoff too hard when it comes to 62 saves on 65 shots in the last three games, all of which were against nationally-ranked opponents and two of which were played away from the friendly confines of Tsongas Center. If not for the near-legendary season being turned in by Jon Gillies in Providence, we would be ready to anoint Hellebuyck the best goaltender in Hockey East, small sample size be damned.

But speaking of the two goals BC actually scored in this one, another reason Lowell won tonight was that those goals did nothing to deflate it. Earlier in the season, we saw Lowell crumble the second the opposition beat the defense and goaltender. We feared, as well, that we might see it again tonight once BC leveled the score at 2-all midway through the second period. But after the ‘Hawks established themselves on Wilson’s relatively early power play marker, BC went right back and pulled square just 1:59 later. That could have been cause for concern, and certainly would have been had the game been played in October or November. But Josh Holmstrom cared not at all for the Eagle equalizer, and instead put the River Hawks back on top just 23 seconds after that on a shot that was nearly on par with Wilson’s thanks to a gorgeous feed from Joe Pendenza, who’s playing better hockey right now than anyone in the entire conference. We’ll get to that in a minute though. Lowell could have folded up tents after that first Arnold equalizer, coming so soon after the early go-ahead as it did, or at least allowed the sails to slump a little bit, but instead, Holmstrom stood in defiance and nearly off the ensuing faceoff buried the knife into BC’s guts once again. There was a reason the score remained the same after not only after the first period, but the second as well, and that was because the Eagles found themselves in the rather unfamiliar position of chasing the game, and Lowell for all its newly-developed defensive prowess cared little for the meager attempts their hosts could muster. Eight shots allowed in the first, 11 in the second (seven of which came in the space of five minutes or so following the midway point of the game), and a pathetic five in the third. We said about the Saturday game that Hellebuyck had time to read a Dostoevsky novel in the space between BU shots; tonight he at least had time to outline a thesis about his impressions of the Brothers Karamazov. He was that unbusied by whatever Gaudreau (zero shots, minus-2 rating) and Co. had to do with him.

Which brings us, we suppose, to Joe Pendenza and Christian Folin and the runaway 3-on-2 break that ultimately won Lowell the game. BC had been trying — somewhat in vain — to turn up the heat on the River Hawks after Arnold (Billy, not Derek) leveled with his second of the night, and despite a spot of confusion among the Lowell defenses, a BC turnover in its attacking zone was produced, which in turn led to the aforementioned odd-man break. It was lugged most of the way between the two forwards, if memory serves, with Folin, we must note, looking somewhat baffled to have found himself caught up in the play. Pendenza carried it across the left faceoff circle and everyone on the ice (at least on BC’s side of things) seemed to be evinced of his likelihood to shoot the puck. Instead, he deferred to Folin, who seemed as surprised as anyone to have it on his tape. So he passed back to Pendenza, as you might expect when dealing with the hottest hand in Hockey East. Pendenza opted to shoot from a relatively low angle, though he judiciously chose not to pick out a corner, but rather fire low off Parker Milner’s pads and hope that it produced a rebound. It did. The puck rattled back to Folin, after its fashion, and the freshman defenseman had 24 square feet of net at which to shoot. He didn’t miss. That goal came just 4:01 after Arnold’s quickly-irrelevant equalizer and buoyed Lowell the rest of the way. Riley Wetmore, who had himself a high-quality night in producing two points and a raft of scoring chances, buried an empty-netter with some 46 seconds to go to firmly salt the game away, and give Lowell all the assurance of two points it needed. Little came of the game’s remainder.

And so it was that Lowell, a team with just five league points prior to Dec. 8, ascended the mountain and found itself standing where earth meets sky with three other teams, the Eagles among them. It’s gut-wrenching to think about all the points surrendered in those early goings, to Maine, to UNH, to these same Eagles who looked so uncharacteristically feckless tonight (it is after Feb. 1, is it not?). But at the same time, now only fate lay in the way of Lowell’s  continued dominance of this league. We picked them to win the regular season for the first time in school history at the beginning of the year, and after a dicey start to say the least, that at a minimum, such a feat now seems feasible. Its next opponent is Merrimack, a point back of the top four having been disemboweled by that sad, sorry BU team Lowell dispatched with such ease on the weekend, and if the River Hawks decide to play like this again, we don’t see either contest being particularly close, regardless of venue and past circumstances.

This is a team peaking at the exact right time, and one that doesn’t look particularly primed for a fall any time soon. Boston College found this to be true. As will others.

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