CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — The Eagle Express continued its ride toward the Hockey East regular-season title thanks to a three-point night from the league’s leading scorer, Ryan Shannon, and a 21-save performance from goaltender Matti Kaltiainen, as No. 1 Boston College knocked off Massachusetts-Lowell, 4-1, in front of an sellout crowd of 7,884.
Shannon, one point short of 100 for his Eagles career, continued his top-notch scoring pace, atop the Hockey East scoring ladder with 27 points in 19 league games.
“[Shannon] has had an unbelievable year for us,” said Eagles head coach Jerry York of his center, who now has 36 points in 31 games overall this year. “He’s strong offensively as his numbers would suggest, but also defensively.
“He backchecked again tonight and caught someone from behind. He’s very responsible in our end of the ice.”
In true athlete-speak, Shannon said his personal points don’t matter much, but that taking two points from Lowell was key.
“We’re two points closer to a championship,” said Shannon. “Those are the only points that really matter.”
Friday’s victory did boost the Eagles’ record, though it didn’t earn them an ounce of breathing room. BC only kept pace with second-place Maine, a 3-2 winner at home over Providence. Still, a five-point lead with five games left gives BC a cushion that at least lets the Eagles begin thinking postseason.
“We’re definitely looking towards the playoffs,” said Shannon. “These games feel awesome to do that, and we’re coming together. We’re not trying to be better than the other team — we’re just trying to be as good as we can be.”
Friday, that meant being able to deal with a scattered forecheck that the River Hawks threw at BC. The Eagles offense was held to only 26 shots on the night.
“I was really happy the way we played for the better part of the first 40 minutes,” said Lowell head coach Blaise MacDonald. “We limited their shots despite the fact they average nearly 37. BC, though, makes you pay dearly for mistakes.”
On Friday, those mistakes came twofold for MacDonald’s clubs in the form of turnovers and spotty goaltending. BC was opportunistic against Lowell’s tight defense, turning puck blunders into quality shots, and in the case of Shannon’s goal, the third of the game for BC, a shot to the back of the net.
“The turning point in the game was a turnover in the third period where we had a chance to get it out on their third goal and it wound up in the back of the net,” said MacDonald, also critical of goaltender John Yaros (22 saves), who surrendered two questionable goals, according to MacDonald, to spot the Eagles a 2-0 lead.
“You have no chance of beating this club unless you get stellar goaltending,” said MacDonald. “We clearly didn’t get it on those two goals and now you’re fighting an uphill battle.”
The win continued a lopsided streak in the series that favors BC. The Eagles have now outscored Lowell, 15-3, in the last three outings, limiting the River Hawks to one goal in each of the games. BC has now won five straight from Lowell dating back to the River Hawks’ sweep of the season series in 2001-02.
A fairly even first period saw Lowell outshoot the Eagles, 10-7, but BC take a 1-0 lead on the scoreboard. BC’s David Spina put home a rebound of a J.D. Forrest shot, partially fanning on the shot but getting just enough puck to lift it over the left shoulder of Yaros at 11:23.
Lowell looked for sure to tie the game less than five minutes later, but a game-breaking save by Kaltiainen preserved the lead. Lowell’s Ben Walter skated 2-on-1 with Mark Pandolfo, froze the goaltender and then shooting a quick pass across the crease. Pandolfo did exactly what he should, firing a quick one-timer, but an anticipating Kaltiainen moved left to right to make an incredible pad save, keeping the game 1-0 through one.
In the second, Eagles sophomore Stephen Gionta extended the lead, scoring his first goal in more than a month. Skating down the left wing, Gionta’s harmless-looking shot turned out to be a threat, finding the upper right corner of the net over the glove of Yaros for a 2-0 Eagles lead.
Besides just extending the lead, the second period was crucial for the Eagles, overtaking the territorial advantage from the River Hawks, outshooting them 10-5 in the period and nailing five grade-’A’ opportunities to Lowell’s one.
As big as Gionta’s goal was in the period, a hit he delivered minutes earlier on Lowell’s Matt Collar is sure to make Hockey East’s postseason reel. After Collar played the puck in front of the BC bench, Gionta blasted the River Hawks defenseman over the boards, giving him a front-row seat on the wrong side of the ice and sending the BC crowd into boisterous excitement.
Perhaps desiring to top Gionta’s hit, Shannon scored one of the prettiest goals of the year in the third to give BC a 3-0 lead. Picking up the puck at the right post, Shannon skated high speed around the cage. Creating room in front, he fired a shot that Yaros saved, but following up, Shannon dug the puck from two defenders, looked to the net and fired past the fallen netminder.
Lowell would eventually answer, as Bobby Robins’ shot was tipped in front by Jason Tejchma for the seventh goal of the freshman’s season.
But BC answered with 4:56 to play, putting the game out of reach. Tony Voce scored on the power play on what is almost becoming a patented play. Voce set up shop at the right faceoff dot, and awaited a Shannon-to-Andrew Alberts pass that Voce has mastered one timing over the goaltender’s right shoulder. Burying the goal gave the Eagles a 4-1 lead, dissipating thoughts of a comeback for the River Hawks.
Despite the lopsided score, MacDonald felt confident heading into Saturday’s rematch.
“Late in the game we might not have found our options a quickly as we’d like, but defensively our coverage was solid,” MacDonald said. “Let’s face it. They’re going to get a lot of chances, but it’s how you react to those that’s critical.”