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Sunday thoughts: River Hawk and Animal

March 3, 2013

Merrimack had seven shots in the first period. So did Josh Holmstrom. And just like that, the game was over.

The cloud which will hang over this contest for Merrimack, which desperately needed the win to keep its fast-fading hopes of home ice burning, is that Mark Dennehy made the rather curious decision to switch away from Sam Marotta, who took over the starting job a little before Connor Hellebuyck did. In his stead was Rasmus Tirronen, whose stats for the season were just as unimpressive as his performance in this one.

Marotta’s loss to Lowell on Friday night was his third in a row, and that had to be at least somewhat concerning for the Warriors headed into this game, which decided the season series, but we didn’t feel as though his performance merited any sort of switch back to Tirronen. It’s likely that this was a decision made to shake the team out of its little slump, but the River Hawks once again overwhelmed their opponents, and trotted to a 3-1 victory despite some concerning moments in the third period. Through it all, Lowell is the first team in the conference to clinch a home ice spot and now stands atop Hockey East headed into the final weekend, its hopes for maintaining that position firmly in its own hands.

What we often say about Lowell games against Merrimack in the last few years is something along the lines of, “Things didn’t start out easy for the River Hawks in this one.” And along those same lines, Dennehy’s comments from Friday night’s game about the team that scores first winning more often than not certainly held up. Holmstrom opened the scoring less than seven minutes into the game to culminate a dynamic shift in which AJ White got the puck deep, and Holmstrom got hammered along the endboards by Jordan Heywood, but then immediately went to front Tirronen at the top of the crease. As that went on, Joe Pendenza found Joe Houk along the halfboards at the top of the left circle, and Houk fired. Holmstrom redirected it almost the instant he arrived in front of the Finn, and the ‘Hawks were out to a quick lead.

This was, obviously, quite the departure from what we’d come to expect. The number of goals Lowell scored before the start of the second period in any games against Merrimack in the last two seasons stood at zero heading into this one, but this was clearly a River Hawk side that got a good talking-to from Norm Bazin about the importance of getting off to a good start. Holmstrom doubled the lead with another goal 4:22 later, this time on the power play, and once again it was entirely the result of going to the front of the net. But where last time he had a Merrimack defenseman all over him and scored anyway, he found himself in acres of space in front of Tirronen and was able to finally shove the puck past him after a centering attempt from Scott Wilson. That, by the way, gave Lowell its fifth player with a double-digit goal total on the season, something which no other team in Hockey East can boast. You want unstoppable scoring depth? You’ve got it.

Holmstrom was by far the most influential player on the ice, not only in terms of the fact that he scored two goals, but that he had seven shots in those opening 20 minutes (and ended with nine in the game) went a long way to establish a dead-serious tone that forced Merrimack to deviate from its typical plan of trying to out-defend its opponents. It couldn’t do that any more, and instead spent swaths of the game floating not the usual one player at the opposing blue line, but two. That’s how desperate Dennehy was to get back into the game, but once the second period got under way, his team’s offensive chances only receded; with the Warriors already in a hole and looking something to help them climb out, the only thing Lowell threw them was a shovel.

Where Merrimack matched Holmstrom’s seven in the first, it couldn’t even muster that many in the second, as Lowell was perfectly content to pack it in for Connor Hellebuyck, who could have spent most of the second in the dreamless sleep of an innocent. Six shots on goal for Merrimack in what should have been a frantic second frame, despite long stretches of four-on-four play in the middle part of it. This was perhaps Lowell’s best single-period defensive effort of the last two weeks, and in the center of it all at 7:09 came Greg Amlong’s first career goal, which turned a respectable lead into an insurmountable one.

The play started on a quick rush up the ice with who but Joe Pendenza, who got worked to the outside by Heywood on a 2-0n-2 and just kind of threw the puck into the middle. Tirronen must have expected a shot, because he overcommitted to one pretty heavily, and you can almost consider him blameless for doing so, because like Pendenza, Amlong didn’t have the inside on Tom McCarthy at the other side of the slot. But the freshman defenseman put his stick down and, like Holmstrom’s two strikes before him, scored from a very short distance away to further broaden the lead in a game that was now very much under Lowell’s thumb.

With that having been said, we imagine the speech Dennehy gave his charges in the second intermission was nearly enough to rival Bazin’s apparently convincing marching orders before the game. Now, you could make the very legitimate argument that such a paint-peeler was about two periods too late (and you’d be right), but that didn’t prevent Merrimack from storming out of the dressing room and throwing everything it had left at the Lowell ramparts. Where the Warriors had but 13 shots between them through the first 40 minutes, they generated 19 more in the final 20. Lowell, meanwhile, had 10 of its own. You’d think this was a pretty busy period given that 29 shots happened in just 20 minutes, and it wasn’t unbusy, but apart from the Merrimack goal to end Hellebuyck’s shutout bid just 22 seconds into the period, no one ever seemed to be particularly in danger of conceding again.

Things got a little testy as the game wore down and Merrimack’s frustration at having scored just two goals in three games against the River Hawks set in (not that we’re having a party for Lowell only getting seven in those same contests). There were 31 penalty minutes handed out in the period, though 15 of them were given to Kyle Bigos for a contact to the head major with no time on the clock. And in the end, that’s all Merrimack really is in the grand scheme of things. A two-player team (Mike Collins and Jordan Heywood) that sticks to its systems exceedingly well and probably won’t do much if those two aren’t on their games. Collins had fully one-quarter of Merrimack’s 32 shots, and Merrimack slipped to 2-8-3 when he doesn’t have at least a point. As Johnny Gaudreau found on Tuesday, spending an entire game in Chad Ruhwedel’s crosshairs isn’t conducive to scoring very much at all, and finished the season series against the River Hawks 0-0-0 and minus-2 in three games.

Now only two games remain in the Hockey East regular season. Lowell has positioned itself better than anyone in the league against all odds. How can it possibly let the Providence team it dominated on home ice a month and a half ago derail Bazin’s grand designs now?

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