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Weekend preview: The good old days, the good old days

March 1, 2013

The Lowell River Hawks (19-9-2, 13-8-2 Hockey East) vs. the Merrimack Warriors (14-12-6, 12-8-3 Hockey East)

7 p.m. Friday at Tsongas Center, Lowell, Mass.
4 p.m. Sunday at Volpe Center, North Andover, Mass.

Lowell is tied for first in Hockey East with 28 points from 23 games, and Merrimack is fifth in Hockey East with 27 points from 23 games.

Last three games
Lowell  — 4-2 at BC, 3-1 vs. BU, 3-0 at BU.
Merrimack — 2-5 at BU, 1-2 (ot) vs. BC, 2-2 (ot) at Providence.

Prior meetings
Lowell leads Merrimack 69-36-9, all-time.

Season series
Lowell was shutout 1-0 by the Warriors at Volpe Center exactly one month ago and turned in as ugly an offensive performance as that score suggests. It was bad. It was also the second-to-last time Lowell lost a game.

Top scorers
Lowell:
Joe Pendenza — 30 GP, 12-18-30 (22 GP, 9-16-25 HE)
Scott Wilson — 30, 11-15-26 (23, 9-13-22)
Riley Wetmore — 30, 14-7-21 (23, 12-6-18)
Derek Arnold — 30, 8-13-21 (23, 8-8-16)
Josh Holmstrom — 30, 8-11-19 (23, 7-6-13)

Merrimack:
Mike Collins — 32 GP, 15-21-36 (23 GP, 10-21-31 HE)
Jordan Heywood — 32, 7-10-17 (23, 7-6-13)
Shawn Bates — 26, 6-9-15 (19, 4-7-11)
Rhett Bly — 32, 5-10-15 (23, 3-8-11)
Connor Toomey — 32, 4-11-15 (23, 4-9-13)

Goaltending
Lowell:
Doug Carr (8-8-2) — 19 GP, 1,052:29, 2.79 GAA/.897 sv% (15 GP, 863:12, 3.06 GAA/.889 sv% HE)
Connor Hellebuyck (11-1-0) — 13, 728:22, 1.57/.940 (9, 498:08, 1.45/.942)

Merrimack:
Sam Marotta (11-7-4) — 22 GP, 1,306:46, 2.11 GAA/.928 sv% (18 GP, 1,058:05, 2.15 GAA/.928 sv% HE)

Team stats
Lowell:
Overall (30 games) — 93 goals for (3.10/gm), 70 goals against (2.33/gm). Power play 26/150 (17.3, 5 SHGA), penalty kill 92/110 (83.6%, 5 SHGF)
Hockey East (23 games) — 70 goals for (3.04/gm), 56 goals against (2.52/gm). Power play 21/125 (16.8%, 4 SHGA), penalty kill 72/88 (81.8%, 4 SHGF)

Merrimack:
Overall (30 games) — 83 goals for (2.59/gm), 77 goals against (2.41/gm). Power play 24/156 (15.4%, 6 SHGA), penalty kill 123/142 (86.6%, 2 SHGF)
Hockey East (23 games) — 63 goals for (2.74/gm), 53 goals against (2.30/gm). Power play 20/115 (17.4%, 4 SHGA), penalty kill 91/102 (89.2%, 1 SHGF)

Outlook
Last year we spoke a little bit about how a late-season series between Merrimack and Lowell was the biggest in the two programs’ respective head-to-head histories because both were ranked in the top 10 in the nation at the time. At the time, that was certainly true. Now it isn’t, because with four points on the line and Lowell tied for first in the conference at this late date with Merrimack fifth but only a point back, this is is the biggest series in the two programs’ respective head-to-head histories.

And interestingly, despite how tightly-grouped the top six teams in the league are right now, Lowell and Merrimack both come into the weekend with two very disparate recent histories. The River Hawks, obviously, are winners of their last five games in a row, extending an otherwise impressive run to 18 games with just two losses. The Warriors, meanwhile, have failed to win in three straight, including a pair of losses to the teams Lowell just got done handling with notable casualness. The obvious spanner in the works for all this, though, is that the last time these two teams met — the only time this season, too — Merrimack handed Lowell one of those two losses in the last 18 we just mentioned. Not only that, Lowell played a genuinely bad game in it, losing 1-0 but never once looking like it would even come close to actually scoring on Sam Marotta, who has in more recent days given up five goals on 47 shots, “good” for an .894 save percentage.

But the other issue with that game is that it it did not feature Lowell’s likely starter for both contests this time around, as Connor Hellebuyck was still sitting out with whatever ailed him for that long month. Not that Doug Carr played badly in his stead, far from it in fact, but nonetheless this team seems invincible in front of Hellebuyck in a way that it doesn’t with Carr between the pipes. We say that not even taking into consideration the fact that Hellebuyck is now on 11 straight wins, but based more on the fact that the last five games haven’t even been especially close; Lowell has just turned into an unstoppable swarm that does everything so, so well all at once (except maybe perform on the power play).

The other facts remain more or less the same, except to note that Joe Pendenza is indeed playing the best hockey of anyone in the conference, and it will likely be all the Warriors can do to bottle him up. So what of Riley Wetmore (seven points in his last five games)? Or Derek Arnold (six in five)? Or Scott Wilson (five in five)? Or Chad Ruhwedel (four in three)? Or Christian Folin (two in two)? This is a team that suddenly got very deep and very productive all at once, and the likelihood that Merrimack holds the Lowell attack silent, or even especially quiet, once again seems rather low.

The other way around, though? If BU and BC mustered a combined three goals against these guys over three games, and never put more than 25 shots on goal, and Ruhwedel slowly strangled both teams’ far-more-skilled top lines, what hope does Merrimack have to score more than one or maybe two on the outside? The game plan is pretty simple: Cover Mike Collins. After that? Who cares. Their second-leading scorer has as many points as Lowell’s eighth-best, a freshman defenseman who started the year with one point in 10 games. Obviously the non-Collins players on Merrimack are capable of scoring goals. One of them did it in the Lowell loss. But the odds that they do so also seem rather low.

We hate to keep doing this (not really), but we have to call this what it is: A series from which Lowell should take all four points. Merrimack’s designs on making a run to the top have to stop here, and kicking their teeth in for two Ws is exactly what Lowell needs given who the other teams tied for first are playing the last two weekends of the season. Hell, it needs all eight points, just to be safe. So start with four here and see where that takes you. Look, if the BU team we saw last weekend can paste these guys, that same Lowell team can positively flatten them.

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