LOWELL, Mass. — The UMass-Lowell River Hawks used superior special teams and collected two goals from their defenseman to earn a much needed 4-1 decision over UMass-Amherst on Saturday night.
The win was the tiebreaker in the season series between the two Massachusetts schools, earning Lowell the Alumni Cup for the fourth straight year and more importantly giving Lowell the tiebreaker should the clubs finish in a tie in the Hockey East standings.
“We got a crucial two points tonight,” said Lowell coach Tim Whitehead, whose River Hawks catapulted from a seventh-place tie with Amherst all the way to fifth. “We’ve climbed to fifth but we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves.”
The story on the night for both clubs was special teams. Two of Lowell’s four goals were power-play tallies, and the River Hawks stopped Amherst on seven of eight opportunities.
“Penalties hurt us as we haven’t been a good penalty kill team all year,” said UMass-Amherst coach Don “Toot” Cahoon. “Continually, we’ve made major blunders on the PK, which we made two tonight, and they capitalized.”
It what was a typically physical game between these two in-state rivals, referee Jim Fitzgerald whistled a total of 20 minor penalties, making for plenty of open ice. That open ice seemed to favor Lowell’s Ed McGrane, who smacked home two power-play tallies, giving the sophomore 10 goals on the season.
“The biggest thing for us was that we were moving the puck well [on the power play],” said McGrane. “As soon as we had possession, [Amherst] kind of backed off and that gave our guys time to see openings and find seams. We just had it together tonight and were able to drive the net.”
Lowell, possibly one of the hottest teams in Hockey East behind Boston College, has posted a 5-2-3 record in its last 10 league games. The stat is even more impressive noting that half of those games were against nationally ranked teams and the only two losses are one-goal defeats against No. 2 Boston College.
Anyone who has followed Lowell for this span knows that the goaltending of junior Jimi St. John (25 saves) has been most of the story. After Saturday’s game, St. John’s record on the season improved to 9-5-1, after entering the year with only two career wins. Plenty are taking notice.
“I think he’s done a real good job,” said Cahoon. “I’ve seen him a couple of times against us and on a few more occasions and he does a nice job of squaring himself to the shooter and playing the puck.”
“He’s really stabilized our team defense,” Whitehead said about the Hockey East Goaltender of the Month for January. “The guys are doing a great job in front of him and that’s been a great combo. It’s been a big boost for our team.”
The games between the two Massachusetts schools have, over the last seven years, been some of the most competitive on each school’s schedule. Though the Alumni Cup has only been on the line for six years now, it’s surely the beginnings of a great rivalry.
“[The Alumni Cup] will mean more every year that we play,” said Whitehead, who, unlike first year coach Cahoon, has been on hand for all seven series against Amherst and the last five as head coach. “We’re only seven years into [the rivalry], but as you get into 10 and 15 years into it, it’s going to take on more and more meaning.”
The game began with slow play, as both clubs seemed to be feeling one another out like prizefighters. It wasn’t until 14:37 when Lowell’s Brad Rooney was set up alone in front that either team had a grade A scoring chance. Amherst goaltender Mike Johnson (15 saves), though, got across the crease to stop Rooney, keeping the game scoreless.
But Lowell did strike at 15:47 when McGrane buried a doorstep bid on the power play. Yorick Treille worked the puck from the left point down low to Rooney. He immediately fed McGrane in the slot, who was left so open that he could pick his spot on Johnson for the 1-0 lead.
A late Lowell power play gave Amherst ample chance to tie the game, but St. John, with help from the goal post maintained the River Hawk lead. Thomas Pock pushed a rebound on net in the closing seconds. It hit St. John, trickled past him and hit the left post just before the closing buzzer.
The second period was filled with minor penalties, with Amherst whistled for four minors while Lowell received two. So it’s no surprise that the only goal of the period came via the power play.
Again, it was McGrane lighting the lamp when he tipped a pass from the stick of Treille. It was McGrane’s second multi-goal game of the season, his first coming against Army in a 7-0 win on Nov. 11.
The third period brought more penalties, and, to no one’s surprise, another power-play goal, this time bringing Amherst back to life. Tim Turner buried the rebound of Martin Miljko’s shot from the point at 5:25 to bring the Minutemen within a goal at 2-1.
Amherst came within a hair of tying the game 53 seconds later when Brad Nizwantowski was sent in alone on St. John. After a great move to his left, getting St. John to follow, Nizwantowski, came back to his right and tried to stuff a shot inside the post. But somehow St. John got his toe back to stop the shot.
Said St. John, “It’s always big after [the opponent] scores a goal to come back and give our guys some confidence again.”
The River Hawks took full advantage of that confidence as all-American hopeful Ron Hainsey scored on a breakaway at 7:17. Breaking down the left wing, Hainsey was even with the Amherst defense at the blue line but turned on the jets and beat Johnson between the legs for the 3-1 lead.
“That was a huge goal because [Amherst] had just scored on the power play,” said Whitehead. “It was 2-1 at that point and less than two minutes later we counter and score. I thought that was very deflating for them.”
Lowell again took advantage of a numbers on a rush with the result a breakaway for defenseman Darryl Green. After faking Johnson, Green’s shot banked off the left post, hit Johnson in the back and trickled across the line for the 4-1 River Hawk lead and the end of the night’s scoring.
With 15 points, Lowell stands alone in fifth place, one point ahead of Northeastern, which is idle in Hockey East until next weekend, and Maine, which will host New Hampshire on Sunday. The Hawks are two points ahead of Amherst, which with the loss fell to eighth place, and three points ahead of last-place Merrimack, a 1-0 overtime loser to Providence on Saturday.
The Minutemen have a tough road ahead now, with their final six games against the perennially tough competition of Boston College, New Hampshire and Maine. Amherst will play two-game series against all these teams.
Lowell will face red-hot Boston University next Friday night for the Terriers’ “in between” game, the one game between the two nights of the Beanpot tournament, which begins this Monday night. Lowell’s test will be more the venue that the opponent, as five of its last seven games will be on the road.
“We’re coming into every game knowing that we’re going to win it, and if we don’t win it, it’s our fault,” said St. John. “Every one of the these games coming up are ones that we should win.”