DURHAM, N.H. — If UMass-Lowell thought the Whittemore Center was its home away from home coming into its game with third-ranked New Hampshire, the Wildcats made it quite clear the RiverHawks were not welcome in their house, as goaltender Matt Carney and a stifling UNH defense shut them out, 3-0, on Friday.
The shutout provided some measure of payback for the Wildcats, who were blanked themselves by these same RiverHawks earlier in the year at the Whittemore Center, 1-0. It marked the first time in 54 games that UMass-Lowell was shut out, the last time coming here against UNH in December of 2000.
“This is a good example of why UNH is so strong,” said UMass-Lowell head coach Blaise MacDonald. “I think they’re a terrific offensive team. Highly skilled, very opportunistic. They’re the best transition team I’ve seen in a long time.”
In a game that featured Hockey East’s top offense (New Hampshire) and top defense (UMass-Lowell), it was defense that won out, as both teams exhibited a ferocious display of it throughout the tight-checking contest. The game marked the first career shutout for Carney, and the first shutout so far this season for the Wildcats.
“Tonight I felt comfortable. It was the first time all season that I’ve played back-to-back weekends. That’s definitely helped my confidence; it’s as high as it’s ever been,” said Carney.
New Hampshire improved to 22-6-3 overall (14-4-3 HEA), while UMass-Lowell dropped its third straight game to fall to 17-11-3 (9-9-3). With the victory, New Hampshire was able to maintain its one-point lead for the top spot in Hockey East over Boston University, which defeated Providence 5-2.
“I’m very pleased with the outcome of the game. This was a really important game for us, to retain the top spot in Hockey East,” said New Hampshire head coach Dick Umile. “This was a playoff-type hockey game.”
Junior Colin Hemingway, coming off last weekend’s four-goal effort against Northeastern, scored his 26th of the year in the first period, tying him with teammate Darren Haydar for the team lead. Haydar recorded two assists on the night, giving him 107 for his career at UNH, placing him in a tie for eighth all-time in Durham.
“We have so much depth. We have so many guys who can come out every game and contribute. Plus, we have two goalies that are just playing fabulous hockey for us,” Haydar said.
In the first period, with UNH on the power play, Sean Collins charged into the UMass-Lowell end to the left of Jimi St. John with seven minutes gone. Collins’ centering pass glanced off the skate of Lowell center Chris Gustafson, and bounced past a stunned St. John. Hemingway was given credit for the goal.
“That’s the way things have been going for us lately,” said MacDonald.
Lowell’s best chance came with under one minute left in the first, when Riverhawk leading scorer Ed McGrane had the puck in the New Hampshire crease, but couldn’t lift it past Carney. McGrane entered the game as the leading scorer against New Hampshire over the past four years, with three goals and two assists.
In a rarity, the Wildcats did not outshoot their opponent at the end of one, with Lowell holding an 11-9 advantage. Equally as rare was that Lowell outshot New Hampshire for the game, 29-27,
UMass-Lowell may have its “French Connection” of Yorick Treille, Laurent Meunier and Baptiste Amar, but it was the Reading Rockets Connection that gave the Wildcats a 2-0 lead in the second period. Sophmore Steve Saviano finished off a pretty give-and-go with current Wildcat and former Reading (Mass.) High School teammate Sean Collins with a wrister past a helpless St. John at the 6:39 mark.
“Well, being as vertically-challenged as I am, I couldn’t see some of the action in front of him,” remarked MacDonald when asked how he thought St. John played. “I thought he was fine. We needed to give Cam [McCormick] a rest. He’s allowed 16 goals in his last four games. Jimi has played very well in practice, and I believe you need to reward those players who play hard,” said Lowell’s first year coach.
The highlight-reel goal of the night came at 16:56. Wildcat forward Jim Abbott, who has been on a point-scoring tear of late, picked up a loose puck at center ice. The junior blazed in over the Lowell blue line untouched, shooting the puck between the pads of St. John to make it 3-0 New Hampshire, much to the delight of the sellout crowd.
However, the ‘Whit was really rocking when the public address announcer relayed the final score from Salt Lake: United States 3, Russia 2. A raucous chant of “USA, USA, USA” echoed loudly throught the confines of Towse Rink.
Lowell had three power plays late in the third period, but couldn’t get the puck past Carney, as the RiverHawks continued to struggle scoring goals.
“We need to shoot more. The shots you don’t take are easily saved by the goaltender,” quipped MacDonald.
Despite the loss, MacDonald remained optimistic about his team and its chances as the Hockey East regular season winds down towards the playoffs.
“Honestly, I really liked the way we played tonight,” said MacDonald. “We’re getting back to being a solid hockey team again. We’re going to be dangerous come playoff time.”
UMass-Lowell takes on Merrimack Sunday, while New Hampshire travels to UMass-Amherst on Tuesday.