DURHAM, N.H. — When Cam McCormick is in the nets, the UNH fish-tossers are in for a smelly evening.
Since the early 80′s, the Theta Chi fraternity has thrown a fish onto the ice at New Hampshire home games upon the Wildcats scoring their first goal. Only four times in the history of the Whittemore Center have the frat boys been left with a fragrant fish at game’s end. McCormick has now been the culprit twice.
The senior stymied UNH in a scoreless tie at the Whittemore Center last Dec. 2, but was soon after supplanted by Jimi St. John as the top River Hawk netminder. Other than a 6-0 win over Connecticut three weeks ago, McCormick had not started a game since Jan. 16.
With Lowell having lost its last two games, going with the supposed backup at one of the toughest road venues in the league was a gamble by coach Blaise MacDonald.
“As a staff, we thought we needed a change,” he said. “We went back to how well Cam played here last year. Often times, decisions by coaches are based on some hunches and superstitions.”
The gamble paid off big time as McCormick stopped all 30 New Hampshire shots, including highway robbery of Darren Haydar in the second period and Sean Collins in the third.
“He single-handedly stopped at least two goals, maybe three,” said McDonald, who anointed McCormick as the starter next Friday night against UMass-Amherst. “My philosophy is nothing more than those who play well are rewarded with further play.”
Ironically, the only goal of the game, an Anders Strome wraparound in the second period, was scored by Lowell’s fourth line, which also includes Kevin Kotyluk and Niklas Storm. The irony, however, was muted by the trio’s excellent play this season.
“Our fourth line has been our best line by a long shot all year,” said MacDonald. “I put them out [because] I knew [UNH's] top line was coming out because they have the last change. Our Green Line accepted the challenge and went out and ended up scoring the goal. It was like a double bonus.”
Arguably, the win meant more to the 11th-ranked River Hawks (5-2-0, 3-2-0 HEA), who were coming off consecutive losses to Maine and, one night earlier, UNH. Questions about whether they belonged in national polls and among the Hockey East elite might have been tough to answer with a third straight loss. With a win, though, the Hawks made a strong case for inclusion.
“[It proves we belong] for tonight,” said MacDonald. “I certainly think that UNH is a team that is going to be playing when the weather gets warm. They’re a good, good hockey club. This is a good measuring stick for us.”
For New Hampshire (4-2-2, 3-1-2), the loss was its first in league play. Although the Wildcats remain in first place by a point ahead of Boston University, they now give away two games in hand to the Terriers and missed out on an opportunity to improve on their number seven national ranking.
“They outworked us in our own zone,” said Haydar. “We were pretty disappointed in our play in our own zone. Everyone knows it. …
“We [also] missed our opportunities. It makes us think about last year a little bit when we couldn’t finish.”
The loss also spoiled an excellent performance by UNH goaltender Michael Ayers, who, similar to McCormick, entered the game as his team’s backup. Ayers stopped 32 of 33 shots.
“You really don’t want to think about what the other kid is doing,” said Ayers when asked about the effect of a head-to-head duel on a goaltender’s concentration. “You want to do your job and leave it at that.”
A scoreless first period finished in a statistical dead heat. Lowell edged UNH 20-18 in shots attempted while the Wildcats owned a similarly trivial 11-10 advantage in shots on net.
Penalties dominated the period with referee Jim Fitzgerald whistling nine infractions, seven of them non-matching. With the Wildcats leading Hockey East in both penalty-killing and power-play percentages, this potentially opened the door for them to grab an early advantage. Instead, Lowell made it an even game for the 20 minutes, matching special teams with UNH.
Josh Prudden had the first good opportunity off a brief two-on-one. Yorick Treille countered with a right-wing shorthanded breakaway thanks to a springing pass by Mark Concannon.
Midway through the period, Ayers got caught out of the net while shorthanded and Ed McGrane almost made him pay. Lowell’s top scorer fired from the right faceoff circle, but Ayers dove back in time to make the stop.
In the closing minute, 6-foot-3-inch freshman Ed Caron nearly put his wide wingspan to scoring use, almost putting a wraparound in to grab the lead. However, McCormick made the save to keep the game deadlocked.
The second period saw far fewer chances in the early going, largely due to an outbreak of five-on-five play broken only by a single Lowell penalty prior to the final minute. Even then, a UNH too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty was called and then almost immediately matched with a Lowell interference.
Darren Haydar enjoyed two great chances minutes apart in the middle of the period. Sean Collins set up the first to the senior in front, but McCormick made the sprawling save.
That one, however, was made to look like chopped liver in comparison to a highlight reel stop at the 12:30 mark when Haydar took a pass from David Busch and seemingly had the entire open net to shoot at. McCormick, however, dove back and stopped Haydar with his stick. The outstanding save earned applause and even a few standing ovations from the UNH partisans.
“It was a desperation save pretty much,” said McCormick. “I was lucky to get a stick on it. I didn’t even think I had a chance to come across on it.
“From my perspective I made a mistake on that. I didn’t read the play properly. I was playing the shooter the whole way. I didn’t know Haydar beat our defenseman there. It was just total instinct jumping across trying to get anything at it.”
The scoreless tie held until 16:36 when Strome scored on a wraparound, his second goal of the year.
The River Hawks played well early in the third, controlling the puck down low and along the boards to minimize UNH’s rushes off the transition. When they took the only penalty of the period at the 8:19 mark, however, the door was open for the Wildcat power play. Halfway through the infraction, Collins appeared to have McCormick dead to rights only to have the netminder flash a brilliant glove save on the near side to maintain the shutout.
Lowell’s dangerous penalty-killing unit of McGrane and Steve Slonina then threatened twice, first on a McGrane feed in front to Slonina then on a McGrane breakaway triggered by his partner. Ayers made both saves to keep the margin to a single goal.
The Wildcats then spent major stretches in the attacking zone, but the Lowell defense bent but did not break.
UNH coach Dick Umile pulled Ayers with 51 seconds remaining and although the River Hawks had some chances to capitalize on the empty net, they also had to endure Wildcat pressure almost to the final buzzer.
UMass-Lowell’s road win completed a strange weekend in which all five Hockey East games were won by the visitors.
The River Hawks play a home-and-home series with UMass-Amherst next weekend. New Hampshire travels to Providence for its lone contest.