LOWELL, Mass. — The Mass.-Lowell River Hawks, those darlings of the PairWise rankings, continue to do what is necessary to win hockey games.
The River Hawks won’t receive a whole lot of style points in their 3-1 win over Merrimack on Friday, but that’s okay because the only points that are important to them are the two they earned in the Hockey East standings. With the win, played before a sparse crowd of 1,989 at Tsongas Arena, Mass.-Lowell (12-5-2, 3-5-2 Hockey East) extended its current unbeaten streak to 10 games (8-0-2). That streak continues to be the longest in the nation and the longest by the River Hawks since they went 11-0-1 in a 12-game stretch during the 1995-96 season.
Mass.-Lowell has not been defeated this season since losing to Boston University (5-3) at its old building, Walter Brown Arena, back on Nov. 20.
The River Hawks have been slowly finding their identity, and not to mention momentum, with their recent streak. Their No. 9 position in this week’s PairWise rankings officially got the word out and the secret is safe no longer about the small state school along the Merrimack River in the former mill town of Lowell, Mass.
The River Hawks broke out fast last night and scored just :43 into the game on a nifty backhander by Jason Tejchma and never trailed, although a determined Merrimack (8-15-2, 1-11-1) team never let them rest easy.
Lowell coach Blaise McDonald is by no means fooling himself that his team can simply walk into the Volpe Center on Saturday night and expect another ‘W’ over the Warriors in the second game of their Hockey East home-and-home series without working hard for it.
“I’m excited how well we played from the very beginning,” said McDonald. “Obviously to score early was a big lift. (Merrimack’s) defensive top four play as hard and with as much grit and skill level as anyone. They are a very dangerous opponent.”
Dangerous and very desperate, to use the words of Merrimack coach Chris Serino.
“We are desperate in every game,” said Serino. “We are 1-11-1 in Hockey East and you can say that we played with a better effort, but we didn’t play smart. Sometimes you just have to go out and win. You are what you are.”
Merrimack seemed to be in a slumber for the first half of the game while the River Hawks perhaps scored too quickly. The River Hawks didn’t make the most of their 12-3 shot advantage in the first period and would score no more in the opening frame.
The game had a decent flow to it in the second period and Lowell extended its lead to 2-0 by the midpoint. River Hawk defenseman Cleve Kinley made a brilliant blue-to-blue pass to Ben Walter at the Merrimack blue line. Walter took the pass right on his tape between two Warrior defensemen and cut in on net.
“It happened so fast that all I saw was five-hole and I shot for it,” said Walter, who scored his team leading 18th goal on the play. “I knew their defense would be on me so I shot quick. He left it (five-hole) open a bit and I just squeezed it through.”
The goal did serve as a wake-up call to Merrimack and the Warriors answered on the power play a little over two minutes later.
Merrimack defenseman Bryan Schmidt can quarterback a power play as well as any pointman in the nation. He calmly delivered a soft pass from the middle of the Lowell blue line to Matt Johnson at the top of the left circle. Johnson one-timed it home past Lowell freshman goalie Peter Vetri to narrow the lead to 2-1.
Lowell hoped to get that goal back on a penalty shot whistled by referee Conrad Hache because a Merrimack player covered the puck in the. However, Warrior goalie Jim Healey stuck out his right pad to foil Lowell’s Brad King.
Besides the nation’s longest unbeaten streak, the River Hawks also had the nation’s No. 1 power-play unit. You’d never have known that by their first four man-advantage situations as poor puck movement had Lowell’s top-ranked power play not looking so special. That is until the River Hawks broke through on a 5-on-3 man-power advantage with 7:02 to play.
Much like Merrimack’s power-play goal, the River Hawks scored on a one-timer. Andrew Martin, a forward by trade, belted home a 55-footer from the middle of the blue line past Healey to make it a two-goal lead.
Despite Merrimack pulling its goalie for the final 3:38, that is how the score would stand. Lowell has another fine opportunity for a win on Saturday when it faces Merrimack again. The Warriors are getting dangerously close to being the odd-team out of the Hockey East playoffs and it is still just mid-January.
“They are tough, gritty and play great at home,” said McDonald. “When have you ever seen Merrimack not play hard?”