LOWELL, MASS. — About the only thing UMass-Lowell didn’t do in convincing fashion for the first 39 minutes was perhaps sell enough popcorn. After seizing a 4-1 lead, however, the River Hawks surrendered a late-second period breakaway goal and enough penalties in the third period to make an eventual 4-3 win over Providence a dramatic one.
Even so, the win puts the undefeated River Hawks (4-0-0, 2-0-0 HEA) in first place in Hockey East since New Hampshire and Northeastern tied, 2-2.
“It shows that we can be a dominant team when we execute our goals and our plan for that game,” said UML coach Blaise MacDonald.
Defeating a team projected to be the best in Hockey East came as no surprise to Lowell captain Chris Gustafson.
“We went into the game thinking we matched up with them well,” he said. “We went in thinking that down low our defense could outmuscle their forwards and get the puck out of our zone. Our forwards, we assumed were bigger and stronger than their defensemen and would be able to cycle it down low.
“And I think that for the two-thirds of the game [that we dominated], I would attribute to our forwards cycling it so well down low. That’s the best I’ve seen our team do it this year. That’s going to take us a long way.”
The loss drops Providence to 1-3-0 overall on the season, with an 0-1-0 mark in the league. It’s been a disappointing opening for the team picked in the coaches’ preseason poll to finish first in the league.
“Obviously, we’re not playing like a team that got picked to win Hockey East,” said assistant captain Peter Fregoe. “We’re playing like a team that was picked to finish fifth. We got dominated and it’s just not acceptable.
“Any time you lose the first two periods of a hockey game, 90 percent of the time you’re not going to win and we showed that tonight. We played good for one period, but that wasn’t good enough.”
UMass-Lowell dominated the first period in almost every phase of the game while taking a 3-1 lead. The River Hawks, who owned a 16-8 shot advantage, spent long stretches in the Friar end, even taking that to the extreme of great forechecking on the penalty kill.
Lowell controlled play from the outset, finally capitalizing at 7:47. PC netminder Nolan Schaefer had just made a stop on Steve Slonina at the doorstep, but the puck moved to Josh Reed at the top of the right faceoff circle. The junior buried it to become the last of Lowell’s six defensemen to score in the young season.
The River Hawks continued to control play until Providence tied the game at 9:30 on one of its few forays into the offensive zone. David Carpentier took a harmless-looking shot from high in the zone that went well wide of the net. It bounced off the back boards into the crease, however, where Drew Omicioli was able to reach from behind the end line and knock it in.
The goal marked the Friars’ first shot on net in the game; UMass-Lowell had taken the first eight.
Nonplussed, the River Hawks continued to press and took the lead back at 16:47 on Peter Hay’s third goal of the season. From five feet in front, Hay flipped his shot just over Schaefer’s blocker into the far side.
A minute later, Ed McGrane made it a 3-1 lead, converting some nice work behind the net by Yorick Treille. Parked to Schaefer’s left, McGrane slid it along the ice into the net for his third of the season.
The second period saw more of the same until the final minute. Lowell controlled puck possession in the offensive zone and played very thoroughly defensively, holding PC to only a single shot through 19:30.
“We feel we have a strong defensive club, not just the defensemen but our forwards as well,” said Gustafson. “One of the keys was our neutral zone play, picking up players because they have tremendous offensive speed. Our forwards did a good job of that and our defense as a corps stepped it up one more level than we’ve played all year.”
Six minutes into the period, Gustafson scored on a shot from the slot following some textbook passing. Baptiste Amar got the puck to Mark Concannon inside the right faceoff circle and Concannon spotted Gustafson dropping down from his point. The blueliner scored his second of the season, giving Lowell a seemingly impregnable 4-1 lead.
Providence coach Paul Pooley called a timeout, but apparently to no avail as the River Hawks did not back down.
They did, however, make a potentially costly mistake with half a minute remaining in the period, allowing a Jon DiSalvatore breakaway off a bad defensive decision. DiSalvatore beat Jimi St. John to put Providence back in striking range at 4-2.
Four third-period Lowell penalties, most notably a five-minor major and game misconduct to Laurent Meunier for a hit from behind, turned the game’s outcome from a foregone conclusion to an open question.
The major penalty came just 1:29 into the third, but the River Hawk penalty kill which had been so effective all game again thwarted Providence. The Friar frustration reached its pinnacle when halfway through the major an aggravated Stephen Wood committed an obvious cross check on Dan Fontas to even the sides.
The succession of penalties continued, leading to a brief five-on-three PC advantage at 6:04 and then another one of almost a minute and a half duration at 11:23.
Pooley pulled out all the stops, lifting Schaefer for an extra skater to make it six-on-three until a PC infraction for bowling over St. John in a scramble at the crease forced the return of the Friar netminder.
At 13:05, it became a one-goal game when Wood found Peter Fregoe to the left of St. John and fired the puck to Fregoe where the senior could deflect it in.
Providence penalties, however, then short-circuited its momentum. The River Hawks actually enjoyed a five-on-three advantage of their own, but couldn’t give themselves some breathing room with an insurance goal.
Even so, as the game closed they were able to keep the puck in the PC end for much of the last minute to prevent the lifting of Schaefer until 20 seconds remained.
UMass-Lowell is off until next week while Providence hosts UMass-Amherst at 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.