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Friday thoughts: A testament, born out of desperation

March 22, 2013

Providence hadn’t lost a game all season when it entered the second intermission with a lead, but then Lowell wasn’t about to go down so easily to a team that did little or nothing to convince anyone in attendance or watching on television that they deserved to advance.

The Friars scored relatively early into the first period and spent the entire rest of the game praying for dear life that it would be enough, rather than making the case that it absolutely should be. And in the end, it obviously wasn’t as Lowell put together a decent third period outburst then battened down the hatches. The end result was, as you might expect when playing a team with this meager an offense, that Providence couldn’t find a way to solve Connor Hellebuyck or the stifling Lowell defense in 11:30. Lowell won 2-1, but as with the Maine game last weekend, it wasn’t even that close.

Again, it must be said that Providence roared out of the gates. They pressed the attack even as Lowell tried to put something together for itself, and in the end drew a pair of minor penalties that put the River Hawks very much on their heels. Lowell may have killed both (in fact, they killed every one in the game), but just couldn’t put much together in the immediate aftermath, and ended up conceding the first goal of Kevin Rooney’s career at 8:59, as a shot from Noel Acciari bounced off Hellebuyck, and no one picked up Rooney streaking toward the net.

But like any good prize fighter that didn’t come out of his corner looking particularly strong, that jab really only served to rouse the River Hawks from their slumber. They attempted the next 10 consecutive shots, five of which actually made it to Jon Gillies, who was once again transcendent in this game even as his team did all in its power to give Lowell the lead. Lowell continued to take penalties, but seemed to not be quite so reeling, and looked instead like the team in charge. Before the goal, shots were 7-3 Providence. After that, those numbers were reversed (obviously not including Christian Folin rocketing a shot off the post), and though Lowell went to the dressing room down a man, it looked for all the world as though the goose egg on the scoreboard was going to break open at any second.

And it almost did early in the second period, when Lowell actually started getting the puck to the front of the net and Joe Pendenza appeared to have Gillies dead to rights as he moved laterally, but the shot went right into his core; good for trying to put down a perp, bad for trying to score goals in hockey. Lowell continued to press pretty convincingly and Providence wilted all the more, and though the second period was largely uneventful, and came to a close with Providence still leading by a goal, shots ended up 15-7 to the higher seed and the sense of impending doom must have hung heavy in their room.

Meanwhile, Norm Bazin — Lowell’s richly deserving two-time, two-time coach of the year — had to come up with a plan to crack this pesky and stout Providence defense, and solve the best start-to-finish netminder in the league not once but twice. But the talent gap between these two teams was very much in his favor, as was the level of skill exhibited by his top players. So it was that on what looked like an uneventful rush, things quickly devolved into calamity for the Friars, and though Gillies was able to stop Joe Pendenza’s first shot, he was careened into by a pair of backchecking teammates, allowing AJ White plenty of space and net into which to fire his second goal of the year. This all happened just 34 seconds into the final period, and Nate Leaman’s supposedly-genius game plan of trying to sit on a one-goal lead against a high-quality offense was now laying in pieces at his feet.

Lowell continued to press the attack because it seemed that Providence really and truly believed it would be able to shut this team out once again. Each successive shot attempt was met with an almost confused reaction from the Friars; was Lowell unaware that it was not to score goals on Gillies? Apparently not, because a neutral-zone turnover led to another innocent-seeming rush, this time 2-on-2 with Riley Wetmore the puck carrier and Scott Wilson the man going hard to the net.

What happened next was high art.

Wetmore was along the boards with two defenders between himself and Wilson, but feathered a gorgeous backhand pass to the middle of the ice, where Lowell’s sophomore sniper was able to get off a lethal one-timer that left everyone wearing black on the ice wondering what just happened. The River Hawks have made something of a habit of scoring on rushes just like that, getting the puck through to an outside man despite two or more bodies between them, and this was perhaps the most pleasing execution of the form yet. It was also Wilson’s third goal and fourth point of these playoffs, because he’s a big-game player who makes big-game plays.

But now it was Lowell’s turn to sprint for the trenches, and as with what the Rooney goal in the first did to the River Hawks, the Wilson strike seemed to rouse something long dormant in the Friars. Perhaps it was the realization that they couldn’t sit back and hope their goal would be enough, now that Lowell had two to its one. Perhaps it was just the idea that their season was slipping away from them very, very quickly. Or perhaps they decided that since they went in hoping Gillies would bail them out in just about every game this season, they’d do him a solid and try to win one of their own accord. Whatever the reason, the game was all Providence after that.

Nine of the 10 shot attempts in the final 11:30 of the game were from Providence, and those were often wrapped around icings that trapped the Lowell skaters in their own zone for extended periods. But again, it’s far easier to weather a storm for less than 12 minutes than it is to do so for more than 41, and Hellebuyck and the defense in front of him proved that, if math hadn’t already.

In the end, this battle of the netminders worked out with Hellebuyck stopping 34 of 35, and Gillies 31 of 33. Both admirable efforts, both among the best goaltenders in the country, both living up to the billing. But it seems that when you’re going into a one-game playoff, you either go with Connor Hellbuyck, or you go home. Providence didn’t have Hellebuyck, and therefore probably never had much of a chance.

Lowell is through to the finals. Providence is done for the year. That all sounds just as it should be to us.

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