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Friday preview: Objection, your honor

March 28, 2013

The Lowell River Hawks (26-10-2, 16-9-2 HE) vs. the Wisconsin Badgers (22-12-7, 13-8-7 WCHA)

4:30 p.m. Friday at Verizon Wireless Arena, Manchester, N.H.

Lowell finished first in Hockey East with 34 points from 27 games, and Wisconsin finished tied for fourth in the WCHA with 33 points from 28 games.

Last three games
Lowell — 1-0 vs. BU, 2-1 vs. Providence, 2-1 (ot) vs. Maine.
Wisconsin — 3-2 vs. Colorado College, 4-1 vs. St. Cloud, 7-2 vs. Minnesota State.

Prior meetings
Lowell trails Wisconsin 1-7-1, all-time.

Season series
These teams haven’t met since 1989.

Top scorers
Lowell:
Joe Pendenza — 38 GP, 13-23-36 (27 GP, 9-20-29 HE)
Scott Wilson — 38, 15-19-34 (27, 10-15-25)
Derek Arnold — 38, 12-16-28 (27, 10-10-20)
Riley Wetmore — 38, 15-11-26 (27, 13-8-21)
Josh Holmstrom — 38, 12-12-24 (27, 10-7-17)

Wisconsin:
Michael Mersch — 41 GP, 23-13-36 (28 GP, 17-9-26 WCHA)
Nic Kerdiles — 31, 10-22-32 (20, 3-14-17)
Mark Zengerle — 35, 9-23-32 (22, 6-13-19)
Tyler Barnes — 40, 15-15-30 (27, 9-9-18)
Joseph LaBate — 40, 9-13-22 (27, 4-7-11)

Goaltending
Lowell:
Connor Hellebuyck (18-2-0) — 21 GP, 1,210:12, 1.39 GAA/.949 sv% (13 GP, 738:08, 1.38/.948 HE)
Doug Carr (8-8-1) — 19, 1,052:29, 2.79/.897 (15, 863:12, 3.06/.889)

Wisconsin:
Joel Rumpel (16-8-4) — 28 GP, 1,657:45, 1.85 GAA/.933 sv% (18 GP, 1,059:58, 2.21/.921 WCHA)

Team stats
Lowell:
Overall (38 games) — 113 goals for (2.97/gm), 79 goals against (2.08/gm). Power play 31/186 (16.7%, 5 SHGA), penalty kill 132/154 (85.7%, 6 SHGF)
Hockey East (27 games) — 81 goals for (3.00/gm), 63 goals against (2.33/gm). Power play 24/144 (16.7%, 4 SHGA), penalty kill 97/114 (85.1%, 5 SHGF)

Wisconsin:
Overall (41 games) — 111 goals for (2.71/gm), 83 goals against (2.02/gm). Power play 17/132 (12.9%, 0 SHGA), penalty kill 122/151 (80.8%, 4 SHGF)
WCHA (28 games) — 69 goals for (2.46/gm), 64 goals against (2.29/gm). Power play 10/87 (11.5%, 0 SHGA), penalty kill 83/104 (79.8%, 2 SHGF)

Lowell’s leaders vs. Wisconsin
None

Lowell’s playoff leaders
Riley Wetmore — 12, 2-6-8
Scott Wilson — 9, 4-4-8
Zack Kamrass — 7, 1-3-4
Josh Holmstrom — 9, 3-0-3
Joe Pendenza — 9, 1-3-4

Connor Hellebuyck (4-0-0) — 4 GP, 3015:50, 0.99/.966
Doug Carr (2-3-0) — 5, 303:49, 2.57/.929

Outlook
This game is really a tale of four teams. Lowell and Wisconsin had alarmingly similar seasons in that they both started out dreadful then became probably the two best squads in the country at around the same time. From Nov. 29 to the point at which it won the WCHA postseason title, Wisconsin went 21-5-5, after starting a pathetic 1-7-2. Meanwhile, Lowell bounced back from its dirty dozen season opening 4-7-1 stretch to go 22-3-1, while winning both the Hockey East regular- and postseason titles.

And so now we come to the real conundrum here, apart from the inherent unfairness that one of these teams has to go home by about 7 p.m. on a Friday night like a teenager whose parents have an unduly strict curfew: These teams are more or less exactly the same. In the 31 games since the Badgers stopped being pathetic, they’ve scored 2.52 goals per game while allowing just 1.42, an average goal differential of 1.1 a night. That’s pretty good, and if they kept it up all season, they’d be among the tops in the nation.

Meanwhile, Lowell is in much the same boat, scoring 2.81 goals per game in the final 26, and conceding just 1.58. That’s a difference of 1.23 a night, and if it had come for the entirety of the season, that would be third in the nation. As it is, Lowell is fourth at 0.89.

There’s not much separating these teams, but with that having been said, we’ve seen enough of this team with Connor Hellebuyck — that’s 18-2-0 Connor Hellebuyck — between the pipes that we can’t help but feel this is only ever going to be a Lowell win. That’s how we’ve felt for weeks now. The kid is practically invincible, and unless Lowell runs up against a white-hot goaltender (Jon Gillies), he’s usually plenty to get the team past anyone. We’re not saying that to hang too much on him, or to take away credit from the team defense, since it has been stellar in front of him for the the most part sans the senior night shutout when it abandoned him for a few meager instances, which were just enough to get that game to break up another long winning streak.

Again, there was no point, even within the last three games themselves, whether they were against Maine or Providence or even BU — all won by single margins, all featuring little offense from the River Hawks’ — where we were actually worried that the games would go against the good guys. Lowell was diving to block shots against desperately hungry offenses and getting hemmed into its own zone for what felt like hours at a time, but never once did the feelings of “Here we go again” or “Uh oh” or “This is it” creep into our minds. Not for one second.

That’s confidence. Real, palpable confidence. Backed up again and again by this outstanding team and its stalwart freshman and if we feel it all the way up in the stands, the team does as well. And one imagines that a Lowell team which feels invincible very much is as long as it takes its opponent seriously, which a brilliant coach like Norm Bazin certainly ensures.

The caveat is, as we touched on in Loose Pucks earlier this week, that Lowell’s offense has managed just five goals over the last four games, and that’s something that needs to be picked up considerably, especially considering how tough it generally is to score against the Badgers. Again, they’ve conceded 44 goals in the last 31 games, which is an astonishing run, and exhibits a defensive wherewithal Lowell hasn’t faced much this season; Providence is rather a pale imitation if we’re being honest.

But the takeaway is we have supreme belief in this Lowell team’s ability to brush past the Badgers with the same kind of game it brought against BU. No one’s proven they can really stop Lowell yet. Why should some WCHA team that started the year with one win in its opening 10 games be the first?

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