LOWELL, Mass. — Tuesday night’s battle between Merrimack and Massachusetts-Lowell probably wouldn’t have been billed as a goaltending duel entering the game.
While Merrimack’s Joe Exter night in and night out this season has impressed teams enough to make him a strong MVP candidate, Lowell’s Achilles’ heel for much of the year has been goaltending.
But despite an extremely lopsided shot advantage for the River Hawks (36-20), Tuesday’s game played out to be the unexpected — a goaltending duel that featured great save after great save as the two teams fittingly battled to a 2-2 tie in front of an announced crowd of 3,932 at Lowell’s Tsongas Arena.
Each team had plenty on the line. Merrimack is battling for sixth place in Hockey East and quite possibly the right to avoid New Hampshire in the first round, a team the Warriors have not beaten in 28 games, dating back to 1996.
UMass-Lowell is battling simply for its playoff life, entering Tuesday’s game trailing eighth-place Northeastern by one point for the final playoff spot. Lowell and NU will meet on Saturday in the final game of the regular season.
With Lowell dominating the play, each team had a different perspective on the result.
Merrimack’s Chris Serino, whose team for the second straight game was without top scorer Marco Rosa, sidelined for the year with a broken wrist, felt the point was a solid one.
“It’s satisfying,” said Merrimack coach Chris Serino. “For the first time [since we've lost Marco Rosa] we played like we didn’t feel sorry for ourselves.”
Lowell’s Blaise MacDonald, on the other hand, was less than pleased, equating the tie to Lowell’s story of the season.
“It’s almost fitting that we came out of a must-win situation with only a point,” said MacDonald about his club, which could have overtaken Northeastern for the final playoff position. “But give Merrimack credit. They had a good game plan and they hung in there. Most of the points that Merrimack gets this year, [goaltender] Joe Exter is a big part of.”
With goaltending the major story and great saves more plentiful than Grammy Awards for Norah Jones, it’s no surprise that the top two plays of the game came from goaltending.
The first came in the closing seconds of regulation when Elias Godoy, already possessing a goal on the night from the high slot, sat in the same position on a three-on-two. Taking a pass from Mark Concannon, Godoy directed a shot into the top corner with 2.3 seconds remaining that Exter (34 saves) leaped into the air to snare with his right shoulder, forcing overtime.
Then, once the extra session arrived, Concannon again fed a pass, this time to Ben Walter at the far post. Staring at an open net, Walter one-timed the pass only to see Exter make a stellar, stacked-pad save sending the puck into the corner.
The back-to-back stops furthers Exter’s case for league MVP, despite backstopping a team that could finish as low as seventh place in the league.
“The player of the year has to play well but they have to mean the most to their team,” said Serino. “I don’t know another player whose meant more to his team than Exter has meant to us.
“Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t nominate a guy for player of the year being in sixth or seventh place. But with [Exter] I feel very comfortable because I think he belongs with the elite players in the league.”
Blaise MacDonald summed it up much simpler. When asked what gave his offense such fits and an inability to score, particularly in a first period that saw Lowell play on what seemed like tilted ice, he used but two words to answer: “Joe Exter.”
In an extremely lopsided first period, Lowell outshot the Warriors, 13-3, and out-attempted them, 29-8. But thanks to Lowell’s inability to hit the net, Exter’s extreme ability to keep the puck out when it got there, and a little bit of luck, the game remained scoreless through one.
Lowell’s best bid came at 15:30 when Darryl Green was stopped twice in front on point-blank attempts on Exter. The goalie denied both — the second with a remarkable glove save — but dropped the rebound of the second attempt. Green continued to work towards the net and picked up the second rebound, but with an open net fired it off the crossbar, keeping the game knotted with goose eggs.
In the second, Lowell’s domination continued throughout the first half of the period, allowing just one Merrimack shot at the halfway point. Yet still, nothing was getting past Exter. After Merrimack showed life in the early part of the second half, Lowell’s counter attack finally netted the River Hawks a goal.
After Jerramie Domish picked up the puck at his own blueline, he skated down the left wing side on a three-on-two. Drawing the defense towards him, Domish dropped a pass to the middle, finding Danny O’Brien who wristed his seventh goal, and his first in nine games, past Exter to break the deadlock at 12:38.
Merrimack, though, answered late in the period. Derek Kilduff won an offensive zone draw to Tony Johnson at the right point. His high wrister was deflected in front by Brent Gough and past Lowell netminder Domenic Smart (18 saves) to even the game at one through two periods.
In the third, both offenses seemed to have a spark, creating solid chances and forcing goaltenders to come up with game-saving stops at both end of the ice.
Lowell’s Godoy, who was Exter’s victim in the closing seconds of regulation, was able to bury his seventh goal of the season when a loose puck found him in the high slot with Exter bumped out of the net from traffic in front. Godoy described the goal as “lucky” being in the right place at the right time, but acknowledged often times that evens out.
“Sometimes you get the ones you shouldn’t be getting,” said Godoy who scored the game-winning goal in the only series win between these two clubs, a 6-5 Lowell win on January 7. “But the ones you should be getting just don’t work out for you.”
At 11:02 of the third, Merrimack pulled even, scoring for the second time on both a deflection in front of Smart and a defensive zone draw. Stephen Crusco won a draw back to Eric Pedersen that deflected off the back of Lowell’s Baptiste Amar and eventually bounced past Smart for the tying goal.
MacDonald described the Merrimack goals as having “eyes on them,” and took nothing away from the play of his netminder Smart forced to make tough saves down the stretch, particularly one late in the third on Brent Gough from 15 feet.
“[Smart's] been playing like that for 10 or 11 games now,” said MacDonald. “We’ve come to expect now from him.”
With the tie, both teams now have the luxury of looking past their respective Friday night contests and onto Saturday. Merrimack can clinch sixth place with a win over Massachusetts at home on Saturday, but will face Northeastern on the road on Friday first.
Lowell will clinch the final playoff spot over Northeastern with a win Saturday regardless of the results of Friday’s NU-Merrimack game and Lowell’s game at Providence.
“From a quantitative standpoint, [Tuesday's] point was huge,” said MacDonald. “We just need to win Saturday’s game, regardless of what happens Friday.”