NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Merrimack and UMass-Lowell played a gritty, hard fought, defensive-oriented game tonight at the Volpe Athletic Complex. In the end, it was Lowell that battled its way to an impressive 2-0 victory that saw the River Hawks completely shut down the Merrimack offense.
The Warriors mustered only five shots in the last 40 minutes and a total of 13 in the game against the Lowell defense. Goaltender Jimi St. John earned his first career shutout in the winning effort.
Lowell, winless in its last five heading into tonight’s contest, moves into fourth place with the win and a step closer to getting home ice in the playoffs.
Eighth-place Merrimack needed a win or a tie to control its own destiny in the playoff race but was unable to get it, largely due to the stifling River Hawks defense.
“We just couldn’t get anything going tonight,” said Merrimack coach Mike Doneghey. “We couldn’t get into our flow. They did a great job of setting picks and not letting us generate any speed. We don’t play well when we can’t generate speed. They ran a trap in the neutral zone. They’ve got a good team with good goaltenders and they play hard.”
The River Hawks opened the scoring, seven minutes into the first period. The rebound from a Josh Reed shot from the point came right out to Yorick Treille, whose bid was stuffed by Merrimack goalie Joe Exter. But Treille crashed the net hard chasing the rebound, and took out Exter in the process. Laurent Meunier was there to poke the loose puck into the empty net for the 1-0 lead.
If one only looked at the score sheet, they might not think there was a second period played at all. That is because UMass-Lowell carried the play throughout and held Merrimack to just three second period shots. Save for two penalties, nothing of any significance happened in the period.
Most of the third period was played the same way, with Lowell riding a stifling defense and solid goaltending all the way to the end. Meunier’s empty-net goal with 11 seconds left was icing on the cake for what was an impressive defensive effort.
“I think it was a great effort by us,” said MacDonald. “It was a huge game. We knew that coming in.
“Merrimack is a very highly-regarded opponent for us. We have a lot of respect for them and their program and hockey in the Merrimack Valley. They have come off two very impressive wins in their last two home games, so we knew this was going to be a real hard fought game for us.”
And hard fought it was. Lowell controlled things virtually the entire game, isolating the play to the perimeter and not allowing Merrimack to get anything in the way of solid offensive chances.
“It was a game where I thought we got better in all areas as the game progressed,” said MacDonald. “Holding them to five shots over the last 40 minutes was a great effort defensively by all five guys on the ice including our goaltender. As a whole it’s probably the best game our six defensemen have played as a unit since 2001.”
Aside from the steady team defense, Jimi St. John’s solid play was a key factor in the win.
“It was a tough game for a goaltender to play knowing that your team is outshooting your opponent significantly, getting some pretty good chances but yet, not much of a cushion. [It's difficult] knowing that the next goal could be a turning point in the game,” said MacDonald.
Said St. John, “It feels good to finally get one. It’s been tough getting in there with the way Cam [MacCormack] has been playing. I just got my chance and like coach said, our defense played great tonight.”
MacDonald praised St. John for staying sharp despite the lack of significant playing time as of late.
“Jimi shows up everyday, supports Cam, and works as hard as he can,” said MacDonald. “He’s been patient. It was his time to get in there. When you get in there, all you have is the present. You can’t look behind and you can’t look ahead, you’ve got to stay in the present. Good things happen when you do that.”
The loss leaves Merrimack in virtually the same position it was in coming into the game. But Doneghey isn’t overly concerned.
“We’re playing some pretty good hockey right now. We’ve got all the lines clicking, we’ve got our defensive pairings playing well, and Joey [Exter] is playing well,” he said.
UML will next play at Northeastern on Wednesday (7 p.m). Merrimack next has Northeastern at home on Friday.