LOWELL, Mass. — Saturday night’s loss can be summed up in one word for Merrimack — mistakes.
In a game in which Merrimack was riddled with poor play, missed passes and lost opportunities, the Warriors had to be shocked to be within a goal at 3-2 with 1:36 to play when Ryan Kiley’s one-timer found the back of the net.
But just when things started to look up, they quickly reversed. As the Warriors tried to pull their netminder off the ice for an extra attacker closing in on the final minute, miscommunication resulted in six skaters plus the goaltender and a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty.
“Tonight was a total lack of concentration, both physically and mentally,” said Merrimack head coach Chris Serino. “[At the end], we’re trying to pull the goalie and a guy jumps on, but then the goalie decides to go back to the net and play the puck. It was just a total lack of concentration.”
Lack of concentration, poor play, or whatever, the result was a 4-2 victory for UMass-Lowell, catapulting the River Hawks from the Hockey East cellar into a tie for sixth place with UMass-Amherst. Merrimack, on the other hand, replaces Lowell in last place, one point behind Northeastern and two behind two UMass brethren.
“This was a big weekend for our team,” said goaltender Jim St. John, referring to Saturday’s win coupled with a Thursday night 2-1 victory at Northeastern. “You can beat teams like Holy Cross and UConn, and that’s great. But these league games are the ones that mean the most.”
St. John, earning his third win Saturday night in as many starts, finished the game with 16 saves, and credited his defense for the team’s recent success.
“I saw a lot of the shots [in the last two games]. The [defense] really cleared the guys out of the way,” said St. John.
The win for Lowell is the club’s third in a row and fourth in its last five games. Since a Nov. 17 loss to Maine, Lowell is 6-2-2 overall and 2-0-2 in Hockey East. Add to that the fact that Lowell has been without standout forward Yorick Treille (concussion) and top defenseman Ron Hainsey (World Junior Tournament) for the last four games, the tally is more impressive.
“It’s been very important as a team to win without [Treille and Hainsey],” said Lowell head coach Tim Whitehead. “We’ve got contributions from a lot of guys and this will give us confidence as these guys return.”
Hainsey, whose U.S. team finished fifth in the World Junior Tournament, will return to campus this week and is expected to be ready to play when the team faces Union on the road on Tuesday. Treille, according to team officials, is not expected to return for at least one more week.
For Merrimack, the season is heading in the opposite direction. After a 5-1-0 stretch in late November and early December, the Warriors have just one win in their last four games, with an 8-0 loss to Western Michigan in the Siverado Shootout mixed into the bag.
Serino, frustrated with his club’s effort and seeing New Hampshire on the horizon next weekend said: “It’s going to be a fine line between sixth place and the cellar. Every single game, no matter who the opponent is, is important. You can’t let wins just slip away.”
Lowell took an early lead thanks to Laurent Meunier’s seventh tally of the season. While on the power play, Tom Rouleau and Meunier created a two-on-none situation low in the zone after Merrimack’s Nick Parillo fell down in front of Merrimack goaltender Joe Exter (22 saves). Rouleau froze Exter and slid a pass to Meunier that the rookie roofed over the netminder for the 1-0 lead.
Merrimack was unable to get any offensive flow in the first period, with the shot total reflective. Lowell led, 9-4, in shots through the first frame, but were forced to start the second period two men down thanks to penalties to Kyle Kidney (hitting from behind) and Josh Reed (cross checking) 50 seconds apart in the closing minutes.
The Warriors, though, consistently had trouble setting up the power play in the Lowell zone, and thus ended both power plays without a shot.
Merrimack was able to tie the game briefly at 4:12 when Parillo pushed a deflection from a Lowell defenseman past St. John, who never expected the shot.
But Lowell responded immediately. As Darrly Green gathered the puck at the middle of the blueline, Geoff Schomogyi darted towards the slot. Green got off a soft wrister that Schomogyi tipped over the shoulder of Exter, off the crossbar and into the net. The goal came just 18 seconds after the Warriors tied the game.
“That absolutely was [the turning point],” Serino said. “You get a goal to tie the game and then on a complete defensive breakdown, they get a goal that should be absolutely nothing.”
At 12:57, the River Hawks opened their first two-goal lead scoring on an offensive zone faceoff. After Brad Rooney won the draw, Schomogyi gathered the puck just off the faceoff dot and slid a blind pass to the front of the net. Standing at the right post, Tom Rouleau gathered the pass and pushed it into the open net.
The third period saw plenty of momentum flow Lowell’s way, but Exter came up big time after time, enough so to earn him the game’s third star. That, in turn, gave Merrimack new life when Kiley pulled the Warriors within a goal at 18:24.
But the goaltending change debacle pulled that life away, putting Lowell on the power play for the final minute. After Merrimack finally successfully pulled Exter, Lowell added an empty-net goal as Jerramie Domish scored his second goal of the season with 9.1 seconds left.
The win put Lowell over the .500 mark at 9-8-2 (3-6-2 Hockey East) for the first time since the beginning of the season, when the River Hawks opened the year with two wins. Merrimack, conversely, falls below .500 to 10-11-1 (3-7-0 Hockey East).
Merrimack is home on Friday night to begin a home-and-home series with New Hampshire. After Tuesday’s game at Union, Lowell will host Boston College next Friday in its only game next weekend.