LOWELL, Mass. — One night after the Mass.-Lowell offense looked like it was on life support, despite scoring four times in an extremely lucky 4-3 overtime victory, it finally flat lined.
Producing just 17 shots and minimal quality scoring chances, Lowell fell, 3-0, in the second game of a weekend home-and-home series to Merrimack in front of 2,590 at Lowell’s Tsongas Arena.
To blame the Lowell forwards, though, according to head coach Blaise MacDonald would not be correct, as the problems lie elsewhere.
“It’s not the offense, it’s the defense,” said MacDonald. “When you’re out there and you’re not coming out of your own zone cleanly, you’re in trouble.
“Mario Lemieux couldn’t create offense from that and that’s created by our defense not being able to make plays on the breakout.”
Besides just the transition struggle that Lowell faced on Saturday, compounding the problem was the absence of standout forward Ben Walter, who was injured in the overtime of Friday’s Merrimack game and is expected to miss three-to-five weeks with a sprained MCL in his left knee. That left the River Hawks’ offense looking a bit lost.
“We had a meeting and addressed all those issues [about Walter's injury],” said MacDonald. “Walter is obviously a great offensive player… but [with or without him], we couldn’t do anything tonight.”
On the other side of the coin, Saturday’s victory for Merrimack was justification, having felt frustrated by Friday’s win in which they massively outplayed Lowell, outshooting them 44-28. Head coach Chris Serino said that Saturday’s rematch was an excellent “character test”.
“A reporter asked me last night, ‘Do you think losing a game like this will start you on a spiral downhill?’” said Serino. “I said that if we continued to play that way we’d do quite well. The confidence comes in the fact that we limited them in shots last night and then limited them again tonight.”
Limiting may actually even be an understatement as Lowell got less than five quality scoring chances in Saturday’s game. Merrimack goaltender Jimmy Healey (17 saves) picked up his second career shutout, making a couple of top-notch saves, but otherwise enjoying quite a simple night.
The game began on a positive note for Lowell, which had zip in its first few shifts, pinning the Warriors in their own zone for the opening minutes and mustering two shots. Those, though, would be the only two shots of the period for the River Hawks as Merrimack kept Lowell without a shot for nearly 20 straight minutes, during which they picked up the game’s first goal.
Controlling the play, Merrimack forward Brent Gough fired a centering pass to an incredibly wide open Marco Rosa, who fired a quick shot past Lowell goaltender John Yaros (16 saves) for a 1-0 lead in the closing minute of the first.
“Playing Lowell and their defense, they usually put three or four guys down low,” said Rosa, describing his goal. “So it was really weird to be that open in front.”
The Warriors expanded on that lead early in the second. This time it was Gough doing the scoring as he lifted a rebound of a Tony Johnson shot over a defenseless Yaros to take a 2-0 lead on the power play.
As the Lowell offense began to get its chances, Healey was strong to the test, particularly when kicking aside a shot by Lowell’s Mark Pandolfo at 13:35 of the second.
“That was an NHL save,” said MacDonald. “Pandolfo came down and across and, from the bench we could see it, made a big-time shot that saw an even bigger time save.”
Holding the two-goal lead entering the third, Merrimack simply had to play the quality defense it had throughout the game. They did that, allowing just five shots in the final period with Rosa adding his career-high 12th goal of the season into an empty net shorthanded with 2:15 remaining.
“I’ve said this before, but I think we’re very good on defense,” said Serino. “Our six defensemen are pretty good and when our forwards chip in to help out, we’re even better. If we don’t spend a lot of time in our own end when our defensemen get worn down, we’ll be okay.”
The win propels Merrimack (8-13-3, 3-9-3) from eighth place in Hockey East to a tie for sixth, jumping over Boston University, a 3-2 loser to Boston College on Saturday.
Lowell (12-10-3, 7-4-1 Hockey East), on the other hand, missed an opportunity Saturday to jump into a tie for second place with Maine, a 1-0 loser against Massachusetts. Instead, Lowell’s loss allows UMass to leap frog over the River Hawks and an idle New Hampshire into third place with the River Hawks and Wildcats now sharing fourth.