LOWELL, Mass. — The UMass-Lowell River Hawks, coming off of a tough 1999-2000 season and a last-place Hockey East finish, suffered an early bump in the 2000-2001 ride, dropping its preseason exhibition game to the University of Ottawa Gee Gees 4-3 Saturday night at the Tsongas Arena.
The catalyst for the Gee Gees was a four-goal eruption in the second period, coupled with a stellar performance by rookie netminder Jordan Watt (37 saves).
The young goaltender came under assault by the Hawks offense for much of the evening but especially in the third period, when he made 20 saves. No saves were bigger than back-to-back, point-blank saves on Lowell’s Tom Rouleau. The defensive gems came with just over a minute remaining and preserved the one-goal lead.
A major storyline in this game was the absence of Ottawa coach Mickey Goulet. He received word shortly before game time that his father, who was back at home in Ottawa sick with cancer, had fallen very ill, forcing Goulet to return this afternoon.
“It was very hard for us before the game — the guys were very silent, ” said assistant coach Mark Dregas, who filled in for Goulet. The coach noted, though, that the club used the difficult time as a bit of motivation.
“The guys really put up a good fight,” said Dregas, who will lead the team Sunday afternoon again when it plays Merrimack. “I think that the guys really used this as a rallying point. It’s a great first step to becoming a team.”
Like everyone in attendance, Dregas was impressed with the play of his rookie goaltender.
“Jordan was incredible,” Dregas said. “His second goal was a little rough and he realized that. In between [the second and third period] he told our goalie coach he wasn’t going to let another past him.”
It was a promise he upheld — much to the dismay of Lowell coach Tim Whitehead. Whitehead’s River Hawks had to feel like a bit of last season had crept back into the arena to start this year. On countless occasions last year, Lowell played nearly perfect hockey, but lapses in focus for a period or less in which opponents countered severely cost the Hawks plenty of one-goal decisions.
“We have to play a certain way this year if we’re going to be successful, and we did that in the first and third periods tonight,” said Whitehead, in his fifth season as head coach of the River Hawks. “But we can’t play only 40 minutes and expect to win hockey games. We have to play a physical style of hockey for 60 minutes.”
The River Hawks dressed three goaltenders for the exhibition, with two seeing action. Cam McCormick (11 saves) started the game and played the first two periods, allowing four goals. Jimi St. John (three saves), the other returning goaltender from last year’s squad, played a scoreless third period.
Lowell drew first blood in the game at 18:04 of the first period on the power play. Junior Dan Fontas found Mark Concannon alone in the slot in front of Watt. The rookie netminder dove forward to poke check Concannon, but was unable and allowed the sophomore winger room to stuff the puck underneath to give Lowell the 1-0 lead.
Through one period, Lowell held a distinct advantage in shots on Ottawa, 11-2, but it was the Gee Gees who had the best scoring chances, both of which aren’t noticeable in the shot totals.
At 6:40, Ottawa’s Chris Jensen marched in alone on McCormick and blasted a shot off the pipe to the left of the goaltender. Just over three minutes later, Lowell defenseman Josh Reed turned the puck directly over to Ottawa’s Sebastien Decaens, and again bells were heard as the junior center blasted a shot off the right pipe.
To start the second period, it appeared as if a different Ottawa team returned to the ice. Within the first minute the Gee Gees has more than doubled their shot total, and at 1:33, Ottawa’s Mario Turcotte cashed in.
The sophomore winger won a loose puck in the corner to the left of goaltender McCormick and fed defenseman Yves Bellerose at the right point. Bellerose unloaded a low, hard shot on McCormick, who released the rebound right onto the blade of Turcotte. He pushed the puck past McCormick to even the game at 1.
The offensive surge for Ottawa continued, but Lowell’s luck did as well. At 10:56, Gee Gees winger Steve Simons was afforded a clean breakaway, but once again, the pipe saved the River Hawks.
Later in the period, though, Lowell’s luck ended.
Hawks Defenseman R.J. Tolan was unable to keep the puck in at his offensive blue line and Turcotte picked up the loose puck and was off to the races. He beat McCormick over the glove on the left side to give the Gee Gees their first lead, 2-1, at 12:39 of the second period.
And just 19 seconds later, the Gee Gees lit the lamp again when center Wayne Hall wisely deflected a shot from behind the net off of McCormick and in. McCormick appeared to lose sight of where the puck was, and while searching from his knees, left himself suspect to the deflection.
Lowell missed a golden opportunity to draw close with 3:30 remaining in the second when Rouleau was set up alone in the slot. After taking the pass, Rouleau attempted to lift the puck over a sprawling Watt but lifted the puck too high, missing the net and sending the puck into the stands.
Just as the Gee Gees were beneficiary of a strange deflection, so too were the Hawks. With Ottawa on the power play, Watt was caught out of the net while trying to clear the puck. Lowell’s Ed McGrane randomly fired the puck toward the empty net, and Ottawa defenseman Richard Tapanja, trying to corral the puck, pushed it into the open net, to close the gap to one at 18:19.
The second period, though, was far from over.
On the same power play, the Gee Gees opened up a two-goal lead once again. With Decaens crashing the net after firing a shot on McCormick, Robert Meanchoff fired a wrist shot through a screen just inside the right post for a 4-2 lead with 57.1 seconds remaining.
With 7.3 seconds remaining, though, the Hawks struck back. Ken Farrell, a transfer from Iona College, displayed good patience at the right point, walking in closer before releasing a low wrist shot that Geoff Schomogyi deflected past Watt to send the Hawks to intermission down just a goal at 4-3.
The scoreless third period saw Lowell outshoot the Gee Gees 20-3. But Watt, who played three years in the WHL for Red Deer, stood his ground.
“Every time that [Lowell] would come close to scoring the guys on the bench took a deep breath,” said Dregas. “They really wanted to do it for Mickey.”
Lowell will open the regular season Friday night when it faces defending MAAC champion Connecticut. Lowell does not play a Hockey East game until Oct. 27, when the River Hawks face rival Northeastern.