LOWELL, Mass. — Two weeks after sitting atop Hockey East and ranked No. 3 in the country, the UMass-Lowell River Hawks entered Tuesday night riding a four-game losing streak, having dropped to fourth place in Hockey East and ninth in the country.
A visit from the sub-.500 Brown Bears might be welcome if you’re Lowell — or maybe not. Twice, in as many years, the River Hawks have dropped games to Brown clubs that combined for only 10 total wins total in the two seasons. And the Bears have been on a roll lately, including a win over highly-ranked St. Cloud State.
So the big question entering Tuesday’s game for both clubs was whether or not history would repeat itself.
Chris Legg’s goal at 7:40 of the third period broke a 1-1 deadlock, as Brown skated to a 2-1 upset of the River Hawks in front of a sparse crowd at Lowell’s Tsongas Arena.
With Lowell controlling the offensive flow of the period — as was the case most of the game — Legg took a 120-foot pass from Paul Crosty that found the junior winger in back of the entire Lowell defense. Legg then skated in on Lowell goaltender Cam McCormick (12 saves) and fired a shot over his glove, giving Brown its first lead of then night.
From there, the Bears could clamp down defensively, much to the pleasure of Brown’s coach Roger Grillo.
“I was happy with the way we responded tonight,” said Grillo. “Lowell was one of the tougher physical teams we’ve played and I thought we did a good job of handling them in our zone.”
The game could easily be classified as a game of survival. The Lowell offense, which has struggled to score lately, tallying only four goals in its last three games, came at Brown with as much as it could handle, out-attempting the Bears, 50-23, on the night. But Lowell’s inability to capitalize on scoring chances early came back to haunt it.
“Tonight was a game that typifies the way we’ve been playing,” said UMass-Lowell head coach Blaise MacDonald. “It was an effort that was probably good enough to win, but we left ourselves enough room for error and in a situation where one mistake could lose the game and it happened.”
Brown had only three shots in the entire third period, with Legg’s goal the only quality attempt.
At the other end of the ice, though, Brown goaltender Yann Denis (30 saves) gave the Bears what they needed most — a chance to win the game. Tested early and often, Denis stayed square to the shooter and took away a lot of room for Lowell to score, something Grillo knows is key to his team’s success.
“Part of our resurgence has been that Yann Denis has played extremely well for us,” said Grillo, whose club is 4-1-0 in its last five games with wins now over nationally-ranked Lowell and St. Cloud State to brag about. “Tonight we [also] got some big goals at some key times.”
The only goal of the opening period came off the stick of Lowell’s Ed McGrane. After taking a pass from Tom Rouleau on the right wing half boards, McGrane fired a wrist shot from the slot that beat Denis to the far side giving the River Hawks the early lead.
In a period that saw few scoring opportunities, Lowell had all of them. The River Hawks led in shots, 10-4, through one period, and on the scoreboard, 1-0. The lead could easily have been larger if not for missed nets on several point blank opportunities.
“We had a lot of opportunities to make the game 2-0 or 3-0,” said MacDonald. “We simply don’t understand that our margin of error is so slim and when they score, we can’t respond.”
Little changed at the beginning of the second period in terms of ice balance. Lowell controlled the flow, holding Brown without a shot for much of the first half of the frame. At the same time, quality scoring chances passed Lowell by keeping the Bears close.
And as so often happens, the Bears capitalized. With Brown’s fourth line on the ice, defenseman Paul Esdale took a feed from Les Haggett and fired a shot off McCormick’s shoulder and in. The goal put the Hawks in a familiar situation — in a tight game against Brown late.
The win raises Brown’s record to 8-9-2 as it returns to ECAC play this weekend with a road series against Colgate and Cornell.
The loss drops Lowell to 16-8-1 on the season and makes Sunday’s game with Merrimack, the beginning of an all-Hockey East conclusion to the River Hawks’ season, utmost in importance. Lowell’s final nine regular season games are league contests, with the River Hawks holding a slim one-point lead over Northeastern for the final home ice spot in Hockey East.
“We’ve elevated above men’s league games,” quipped MacDonald. “This is what’s going to test our mettle. At the end we’ll either be able to look back with pride or we’ll look back with tremendous regrets.”