LOWELL, Mass. — Finally, the monkey has gotten off Massachusetts-Lowell’s back.
Sporting a 6-5 lead with six seconds left and a faceoff in the Lowell zone, a lost draw made every one of the 1,840 in attendance at Tsongas Arena hold their breath, waiting for the inevitable to happen in Lowell’s Murphy’s Law-like season.
But as the puck hopped over the stick of Merrimack’s Bryan Schmidt, a sigh loud enough to be heard in New Hampshire came out of the Lowell faithful as the River Hawks finally got their first Hockey East victory of the season, coming against their cross-town rivals.
“Phew!” was a sound effect, not a word that came out of the mouth of Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald when asked for his reaction.
But as the River Hawks ended their longest season-starting league losing streak in program history, it was some not-so-expected heroes steering the ship.
Rookie Bobby Robins picked a great night to score his first two career goals, while fellow rookie Elias Godoy scored the game-winning goal on a superb solo effort late in the third period to complete a two-goal comeback for the River Hawks.
Tied at five, Godoy carried the puck on what looked like a cycle down behind the Merrimack net. Without ever passing the puck, Godoy moved to the front of the goal crease, deked Merrimack goaltender Joe Exter (26 saves) and pushed the puck stick side into the net, sending the small crowd to its feet.
“I was just trying to get to the net with the puck and get out of the corner away from the d-man,” said Godoy, who now has four points — all goals — in his first campaign. “Somehow I was able to get to the net and put it in.”
Linemate and senior Mark Concannon, who fed Godoy the puck well before the rookie scored, sat back and enjoyed Godoy’s work.
“[Elias] gets away from guys and does a great job of going to the net,” said Concannon. “He’s one of the guys you can count on and that was a big goal.”
The goal completed a Lowell comeback that was forced by a sloppy first period that saw Merrimack hop out to leads of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2. As exciting as the victory was for Lowell, it was equally devastating for Merrimack.
“We’re not going to put up five goals a game,” said Merrimack junior Marco Rosa, who gave Merrimack an early 2-0 lead on his fifth and sixth goals of the season. “When you put up goals like that, you need to be protecting the lead.”
Head coach Chris Serino was most displeased with his club’s defensive zone coverage and puck control — a statistic that, if kept, could easily have favored Lowell by a two-to-one ratio.
“We can’t continue to get beat down low and win games,” said Serino. “We turned it over so many times tonight.”
The loss is the second in a row for Merrimack and only the second time this season it has put together back-to-back league losses. It comes on the heels of Merrimack’s first-ever tournament win, at the Rensselaer/HSBC holiday tournament, and the first time in 12 years that Merrimack entered the holiday break above .500.
All of that translated into what Serino felt might not have been the best mentality for his club.
“When you win, you think you can do more that you can do,” said Serino. “We won because we kept the game simple. Now we’re trying to do a little too much.
“We’ve got to get back to being simple because that’s what we are.”
After Rosa gave the Warriors an early 2-0 lead, the teams traded goals, with Lowell’s Steve Slonina scoring his first of two goals on the night at 7:10, and Lucas Smith scoring his first of the season at 11:13.
Robins answered Smith’s first with one of his own — not only his first of the season but also of his career — deflecting an Andrew Martin shot over the left shoulder of Exter.
But before the period was over, Merrimack scored what looked to be a back-breaker with 44 second left when Brent Gaugh pulled a deflection of his own over UML starter Dominic Smart (nine saves).
Trailing, though, 4-2, and more importantly allowing a late goal, didn’t take the spirit out of Lowell. And that’s something that doesn’t surprise MacDonald.
“I’ve never really questioned the heart of this team or its work ethic,” said MacDonald. “The analogy that we’ve been using with the team this week is, when you’re priming the pump in the well, that you sit there pumping and pumping, never really sure how high the water is.
“If you stop, you’re going to lose the water, but if you keep pumping sooner or later you’re going to see it flowing.
“You’ve got to have faith that you have a good well and good water, and we’ve got a good team and good players.”
Such was proven in the final two periods, as Lowell rallied to tie the game at four on second-period tallies by Slonina and Ed McGrane. And even when Alex Sikatchev answered on a sloppy play by Smart that signaled the end of his night in goal, the Hawks were ready to answer.
That answer came from Robins with two minutes remaining in the second, sending the game 5-5 into the locker room and allowing for Godoy’s late-game heroics. It also gave relief goalie Chris Davidson (six saves) his first win since Dec. 6.
For Lowell, which outshot Merrimack, 32-20 on the night, it was the 16th time this season and 11th game in a row that it outgunned its opponent. In those games, though, the Hawks hold a dismal 7-9-1 record, 4-6-1 over their last 11.
“That was not exactly a Van Gogh,” said MacDonald about Tuesday’s performance, “but for us we’ve been on the other side of some very well-played hockey games where we didn’t get what we deserved.
“We deserved the win tonight and showed a lot of character to bounce back.”