LOWELL, Mass. — Two goals within 34 seconds midway through the third period helped lead the UMass-Lowell River Hawks to a 5-2 victory over the Northeastern Huskies on Thursday night. The River Hawks take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series.
This is the first home playoff series for Lowell since the 1995-96 season and first in the history of the Tsongas Arena. It also keep intact its unbeaten home playoff record in Hockey East at 7-0-2.
The victory for Lowell also helps its NCAA tournament chances. With a record of 21-11-3, it is on the bubble and needs a solid showing in the Hockey East playoffs to make it into the 12-team field. Northeastern drops to 18-16-3.
“This game typifies the Hockey East,” said Lowell head coach Blaise MacDonald. “Two strong opponents playing at a high skill level. We got a lot of favorable bounces tonight and a lot of puck luck.”
These teams are no strangers in the playoffs. They have met five times in the Hockey East tournament. Lowell has defeat Northeastern four times in the quarterfinals, while the Huskies won once in the semifinals in 1988.
“This is disheartening,” said Northeastern head coach Bruce Crowder. “After the first, we played a strong game. We were in a position to win the game at 2-2. Anything could happen at that point.”
Lowell jumped out to the early lead late in the first period. Mark Concannon stole a Northeastern clearing-pass to keep the puck in the offensive zone. After cycling the puck in the zone, Anders Strome got the puck in the slot, and put a wrist shot in.
Lowell dominated the first period, keeping the puck in the Northeastern zone for the majority of time. The Huskies were whistled for three penalties helping the River Hawks to the offensive advantage.
Northeastern awoke in the second period, coming out on fire and carrying the play. The Huskies had several quality chances that were turned away by Lowell goalie Jimi St. John.
The Huskies tied the score at the end of a power play. With Daryl Green in the box for a delay of game penalty, Lowell had trouble clearing the puck. Chris Lynch missed a backhander alone in front of St. John. Tim Judy kept the puck in the zone on the right side, and His shot from the point deflected off of a Lowell defender and behind St. John to even the score.
Northeastern continued to pin Lowell deep in its zone, and held an 11-10 shot advantage for the period. But Lowell regained the lead late in the second period courtesy of their French Connection.
Jerramie Domish sent a cross-ice pass to a streaking Laurent Meunier. Meunier gained the offensive zone and dropped the puck to a trailing Yorick Treille. His slap shot sneaked through a partially screened Gibson to give Lowell back the lead at the 18:18 mark of the period.
Northeastern benefitted from Lowell’s sloppiness in the third period. The Huskies had an eventual 5-on-3 power play five minutes in, and Crowder called a timeout to set up a play and try to tie the game. The Huskies had trouble solving St. John, as he made two outstanding saves on Jim Fahey blasts from the point. The second was of highlight-film material as he flashed the glove to sneer the shot out of the air.
Northeastern’s pressure eventually led to the tying goal. With five seconds left on the power play, Willie Levesque found Mike Ryan in the slot and his shot deflected past St. John. It was Ryan’s 23 goal of the season.
Lowell didn’t back down after giving up its second lead of the night. On the next shift, the River Hawks stormed down the ice and almost regained the lead. Concannon’s shot deflected off of Gibson’s glove and hit the outside of the post.
“I drove the net and he got his glove on it and hit the post,” said Concannon. “He is a freshman goalie and we thought we need to rattle him. We play well down low. That is the strength of this team.”
With the momentum leaning towards Lowell again, the River Hawks capitalized on their opportunities. Strome drove around the defenseman on the right slot and got Gibson out of position. He backhanded the shot over Gibson to give Lowell the lead for good.
For Strome, it was his 14th goal of the season and fifth game winner. Last year, he totaled only one goal for the entire season.
“I have to give thanks to the coaches,” said Strome. “They have the confidence in me and my line mates.
“I came around Concannon’s pick and shelved it.”
Just 34 seconds later, Geoff Schomogyi dropped a pass to Green who was trailing the play. Green waited patiently until Gibson went down and backhanded the puck over him for his fifth goal on the season and Lowell’s first two-goal lead of the night.
Ed McGrane added an empty net goal from just inside his blue line to seal the game for Lowell.
“That is why you have a goalie”, said MacDonald of St. John’s 22-save performance. “It is his job to stop the puck.”
Northeastern must now win two games on the road in order to extend its season. It can be done, as proven last year when No. 5-seeded Lowell lost its opening game at No. 4 New Hampshire, before coming back to win the next two.
“If you have to have your back against the wall, I like my chances with this team,” said Crowder. “We need to be more patient and not try to hit the home run pass all the time. We need to hit a couple of consecutive singles to move the puck up ice.”
The two teams will face off in game two of the series on Friday night at the Tsongas Arena (7 p.m.).