N. ANDOVER, Mass. — You can always count on Merrimack coach Chirs Serino to sum up a game.
“You have fun when you win. You don’t have fun when you lose.”
That’s all Serino had about his and his Warriors’ moods after dropping their fourth in five games, this time to Valley rival UMass-Lowell, 5-2, at the Volpe Complex on Sunday afternoon.
Serino talked about how relaxed the Lowell offense looked, for one main reason — because they are winning and, of course, winning means happiness.
Sunday’s win is the third in a row for the River Hawks and their sixth in seven games. Since Nov. 17, Lowell’s only two losses were one-goal decisions against first-place Boston College. Over that span, the River Hawks have done a 180-degree turn in league play — improving from 1-6-0, to .500 for the first time at 8-8-3.
Lowell coach Tim Whitehead is certainly having fun, watching his team’s overall record improve to 15-11-3, and believes that confidence is the key for his offense.
“When you’re winning games, you’re confident,” said Whitehead. “We’re outworking the other team. Whether it’s on the power play or shorthanded, whatever. We’ve got more confidence and that helps.”
One of the keys to Sunday’s win for Lowell was the contribution of Lowell’s fourth line. The trio of Kevin Kotyluk, Anders Strome, and Peter Hay combined for four points (two goals, two assists), but more importantly, proved Lowell’s offensive potency.
“[The fourth line] was huge in [Friday's 3-2 win over Boston University] because they drew a couple of penalties,” said Whitehead. “Today they actually got rewarded with a couple of goal and was just a huge boost.
“After Chirstmas, when we were missing [key players with injuries], we needed everyone to step up. That was important for our team to understand that everyone is important and everyone can contribute on this team. From that point, everyone started contributing.”
And that balance has helped the River Hawks recently, as the absence of Laurent Meunier, who left the Lowell lineup three games ago as the team’s leading scorer, has not been felt. Meunier was suspended for last Saturday’s game and missed this weekend while playing for the French national team during Olympic qualifying.
The ability of other players to score goals has been evident for the River Hawks through that stretch. When Meunier returns to the lineup this week, he’ll have dropped to fifth on the team in scoring in that short time.
The game was scoreless through the opening 20 minutes, thanks mostly to Merrimack goaltender Joe Exter (25 saves). His 14-save performance in the first kept the River Hawks off the board in what could have easily been a three- or four-goal period.
Early-period saves on Steve Slonina and Ron Hainsey, in addition to a stop on Jeff Schmogyi late in the frame highlighted Exter’s opening twenty. The 14 saves, though, will not include a hit post by Lowell’s Jeff Boulanger midway through the first.
Exter’s counterpart, Jimi St. John (21 saves) was nowhere near as busy, making five saves, with the only tester a toe save on Joey Gray in the opening minutes.
Lowell finally solved Exter in the second period to the tune of two goals in 40 seconds, and three goals in 3:49 to give the River Hawks a 3-0 lead through two.
It was Lowell’s power play, which entered the game at a respectable 23.0 percent clip, that got things going. At 7:47, captain Brad Rooney pushed into the open net the rebound of a Yorick Treille blast from the point that had hit the crossbar.
Forty seconds later, rookie fourth-liner Peter Hay used a nice individual effort to earn his first career goal. After taking a pass at the blueline from fellow rookie Anders Strome, Hay wheeled around the defense, to the left of the Merrimack net and back around on the other side. With Exter caught out, Hay only had to push the puck into the open net.
Seconds after Hay’s goal, Merrimack had its best chance to get back into the game, when Rob Mongeau was sent in alone. But Mongeau, looking to beat St. John over the shoulder, fired high over then net.
The River Hawks took full advantage at 11:36, scoring on a 5-on-3 man advantage. Again, it was Treille’s blast from the point that set up Ed McGrane to poke home the rebound for his 11th goal of the season.
Lowell extended the lead in the third period, when big-man defenseman Kevin Kotyluk, converted to forward for Sunday’s game, pushed home a rebound in a scrum in front of Exter. That goal, coming at 7:18, sent many of the Merrimack faithful for the exit, now knowing what lied ahead.
After the Warriors replaced Exter with senior Tom Welby, they got on the board at 10:08. A shorthanded breakaway for Lucas Smith, gave the Warriors new life as his shot broke off of St. John’s glove and trickled into the net to cut the Lowell lead to 4-1.
Applying heavy pressure, Merrimack struck again. Ryan Kiley deflected a pass from Vince Clevenger past St. John to bring the Warrior fans to life for the first time on the afternoon.
But that life was snuffed out with 4:58 remaining when Rooney added his second of the game through a screen in front of Welby.
Lowell takes its winning streak North from here as they battle Maine on the road in a two-game series next weekend. At stake could be fourth place in the league, as Lowell’s win puts it within a point of the Black Bears for the final home ice spot.
Merrimack can remain thankful that Maine swept UMass-Amherst this past weekend, leaving the Warriors only a point behind the Minutemen for the final playoff spot. Merrimack will play a home-and-home series next weekend with Northeastern, beginning Friday night at home.