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Saturday thoughts: The quality of mercy at 29K

March 9, 2013

What they hardly ever tell you about the ascent of Mount Everest is that once you get up there, it’s never what you expected.

You can prepare all your life to make that treacherous climb, study and train and do everything every good climber who’s ever gotten there has done and avoid every mistake of every unfortunate climber who had to turn back or weren’t so lucky as to even do that much. You can watch video. You can look at pictures. You can read books. You can talk to people who succeeded. But the thing about actually doing it, actually getting all the way up those slopes that have claimed so many dreams with their icy unforgiving faces, is that none of it actually prepares you for any of it.

It’s strange, in a way, that after all that climbing, you get up to the top of the entire world and you realize how small it is. The top of Everest is only about 72 square feet. Not a lot of room up there to relax, certainly, and once you get the chance to look around a little, there’s still the colossal task of getting back down safely, and they never talk about that at all.

Which is, we suppose, why Lowell becoming the first team in Hockey East history not named Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire or Maine, to win the regular-season title is at once thrilling and wonderful and surprising and joyous, and also just the start of this team’s journey.

Another thing they say about Everest is that the last several yards are the hardest; you can wait a long time just for conditions to be absolutely perfect for you to go up those last few steps, so seemingly insignificant but such a huge hurdle with the end and all its glorious rewards so tantalizingly close. Lowell certainly found that to be true this weekend. From the frustrating loss at home to the slog through tonight’s 4-1 win to actually get there, none of this final push came easy.

For a while it seemed like things would be astonishingly simple, though. Providence’s Steven Shamanski went off for elbowing just 2:02 into the game and not long thereafter, Riley Wetmore opened the scoring by shaking free of coverage at the top of the crease and enjoying a nice interchange with Scott Wilson before roofing home his 15th goal of the season. But the quickness of that call portended some very bad things for Lowell, which sent a parade of players to the box all night and eventually gave the Friars a whopping 10 power plays, on which they scored a total of no goals.

Now, far be it for us to sit here and complain about the officiating — given that we hardly ever do it, and not in that Dick Baker way of saying we never complain about the officiating but actually doing it pretty much constantly — but the thing to which we object is not that Providence got 10 power plays to Lowell’s six. The thing to which we object is that there were 38 penalty minutes handed out in 60 minutes of hockey that was going to decide the league championship one way or another. If you’re a referee and want to call a tight game, by all means go for it, but there being 19 minor penalties in a game that was always going to be chippy is ludicrous, and did little to address the fact that there was lots of after-the-whistles posturing and punch-throwing from both sides. In a game of this gravity, common sense dictates you let the boys play between the whistles and crack down on the extracurriculars, of which there were plenty. But Kevin Shea and Jack Millea looked very much like two former linesmen who were fully aware the league’s commissioner was in the building, and they bungled the game from an aesthetic standpoint as well as not doing their jobs particularly well.

But time in the game, as it so often does, wore on with an incredible slowness, thanks to the 55 faceoffs in the first two periods alone and the fact that Lowell was trying to milk a 1-0 lead for all but 3:08 of that time. Providence went 0 for 7 on the power play during that time thanks to its only being able to get four shots through to Connor Hellebuyck during that time. In a complete reversal of the night before, it was the Friars who simply weren’t playing well enough to win, such was the power of the Lowell penalty kill. Lowell played 12:20 of the first two periods down a man, allowed just four shots, and put two on net itself. That’s dominance when dominance is needed, and perseverance in the face of bafflingly persistent adversity.

Still, though, the feeling in the building was that a 1-0 lead wouldn’t be enough to send Providence skulking sadly over the hills, and Tim Schaller, ever a thorn in Lowell’s side, proved that odious intuition correct just 19 seconds into the final period of the regular season. He worked the puck into the zone, got off a shot at the side of the net, and then popped in his own rebound to beat Hellebuyck for the first and, thankfully, only time tonight.

That could have deflated Lowell, but given how much they’d already been through and come out unscathed not only in this game but on the season, we couldn’t imagine an equalizer — even if it came in that somehow-dreaded “first or last minute of a period” — would do much to slacken their sails. And indeed, Josh Holmstrom came up with his third big goal in as many games in the same spot from which he always seems to score: inches from the top of the crease. In this case, he tipped home a Joe Pendenza shot at 6:41 of the third to reclaim the lead for the River Hawks, and this time, they never surrendered it.

Scott Wilson broadened it further at 10:29, and more or less cemented the victory and all the glory that came with it, after Lowell survived yet another penalty kill and went on the man advantage itself, scoring out of a wacky scrum with a goal that even stood up under an unnecessary but seemingly rigorous review. With the insidious Joe Bertagna in the building, we’re sure there was a phone call about intent to blow attempted, but cell service was spotty in the building all night.

Lowell was still put through two more PKs, just for fun, and Christian Folin used the opportunity to net a shorthanded goal into an empty net from the other end of the ice with 13 seconds to go to finalize the scoring, and send the Lowell bench as well as their numerous fans who made the trek down into hysterics. We just sat in amazement, smiling and laughing. It was all so surreal and wonderful.

BC and UNH and BU and Maine are the well-traveled seen-it-all sherpas of Hockey East, who have gone up and down this mountain so many times that it barely registers as an accomplishment when they do it yet again. This particular Lowell team is the Edmund Hillary of the other six schools in the league, and passed the frozen skeletal remains of 142 others before it who have tried and failed to reach the summit.

Now it stands immortal, but it can’t stand still for long.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Monty permalink
    March 10, 2013 2:07 pm

    What a great feeling it was to see them win. The joy on their faces, knowing that they were doing something that no one at Lowell had done … just fantastic.

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