LOWELL, Mass. — For Massachusetts-Lowell and Merrimack, facing off on Thursday night, one would have figured that playoff positioning between those two clubs would be decided.
That rationale, though, didn’t take into account that Merrimack freshman goaltender Jim Healey’s career-high 48 saves, helping the Warriors salvage a 3-3 tie with the River Hawks, leaving the question, “Who will finish sixth in Hockey East?” up in the air for another two days.
“It was painfully obvious we deserved better than a tie in this game,” said Lowell head coach Blaise MacDonald. “Teams that work hard get a lot of puck luck and [Merrimack] certainly had its fair share of that tonight.”
Indeed the Warriors were graced with a bit of good fortune, including running into Lowell netminder John Yaros (24 saves) on a cold night. That, combined with Healey’s polar-opposite play at the other end of the ice, was enough to salvage the tie.
The tie leaves Merrimack one point ahead of Lowell for the coveted sixth place. Finishing in sixth avoids a trip to Maine for next weekend’s opening round of the Hockey East playoffs. Lowell still has a chance to pass Merrimack, by beating Providence on the road Saturday.
The positioning that is at stake would seem critical, but the two teams have different views.
“Maine is a tough place to go and play, with the atmosphere that is surrounding them,” said Merrimack associate head coach Mike Doneghey, who filled in for head coach Chris Serino in the postgame press conference while Serino made a quick exit to see his three sons play in the State Schoolboy tournament at nearby Chelmsford Arena. “I can’t remember the last time Merrimack won up there.”
MacDonald, though, would welcome the Black Bears.
“I’d love to play Maine,” said MacDonald, who joked that getting away to Orono would get him some sleep. “I just wish we could play them in Portland, [Maine,] so we wouldn’t have to travel so far.”
Friday began with a scoreless first period. With Lowell outshooting the Warriors, 12-4, the River Hawks were able to take territorial control of the game, something they would hold throughout.
The second period was a wild antithesis of the first, with Merrimack striking for three goals to Lowell’s pair.
Lowell scored first when Bobby Robbins left a perfect drop pass that Jason Tejchma buried for his eighth goal of the season at 1:58.
Merrimack, though, responded quickly, when Mike Alexiou feathered a soft wrister that somehow squeaked between the pads of Yaros just 18 seconds later to even the score at one.
The Warriors took their first lead of the game at 5:20 when Nick Pomponio made a perfect redirection of a Rob LaLonde shot from the right point on the power play.
Similarly, Lowell answered immediately. Andrew Martin, who was questionable to play up until the last minute after a neck injury against Maine last Saturday, stole the puck from Alexiou at behind the net at the right post, moved around to the left post and wrapped a shot that Healey couldn’t reach at 6:18 to tie the game at two.
Late in the period, Matt Johnson gave Merrimack back the lead. After collecting an Eric Pedersen shot that hit the left post, Johnson clanged a second bid off the same post before finally lifting a third shot over a sprawling Yaros for the 3-2 lead.
The River Hawks dominated the game’s final period but save after save by Healey made it appear the trek to Maine might be on the dockets. That was until Elias Godoy fired home his team-leading 18th goal of the season through a major screen to even with 7:09 remaining.
From there, the River Hawks had opportunity after opportunity, but that puck luck that MacDonald mentioned didn’t come their way.
Never was the more apparent than in the closing minutes of regulation when Brad King picked up a loose puck, walked in on the left wing side and pushed a shot between the pads of Healey. The puck trickled just wide of the far post, preserving the 3-3 score and leaving travel plans unmade, at least for a couple more days.
Merrimack closes the season at 11-17-6, 6-12-6 in Hockey East. Should the Warriors hold on to sixth place, it will be their best finish since fifth in 1996-97.
That, though, isn’t in Merrimack’s hands now.
“It would’ve been nice to control our own destiny on where we’re going,” said Doneghey. “Now I have to go watch another game Saturday night to find out where we’re going.”