NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — For the Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks, it’s mission accomplished — for now.
Living in a do or die world to make the NCAA tournament, the River Hawks took care of business in their first of two games in the final week of the regular season beating Merrimack, 5-1, at the J. Thom Lawler Arena Thursday night.
The victory gives Lowell a 20-9-4 record marking the only the third time in the last decade that the River Hawks have eclipsed the 20-win plateau. It also gives the River Hawks a three-point lead over Northeastern for fifth place in Hockey East meaning a win Saturday against Providence or a Northeastern loss this weekend would lock up fifth place.
The win over Merrimack did not come as easy as the score dictated as the River Hawks missed an empty net in the game’s first minute and then fell behind, 1-0, on an early goal by Merrimack’s Mike Alexiou. Once Bobby Robins tied the game for Lowell midway through the first, the momentum changed and the River Hawks began to take solid control.
“I thought it was a bit of a trap game for us,” said MacDonald, whose team was coming of back-to-back losses last weekend at Maine. “I was reaching for my Lipitor after the first period. Once you miss an open net on the first shift of the game it’s usually not a good omen.”
The River Hawks settled things down from there though and went on to outshoot Merrimack, 47-24, on the game, limiting the Warriors quality chances after the first period. Lowell goaltender John Yaros made 23 saves to improve his record to 4-1-0 on the season.
As much as Robins’ goal was a turning point in the game, the play of Robins’ line that includes Ben Walter and Todd Fletcher was what generated offensive chances for the River Hawks.
“We had a lot of guys struggle [in the losses] at Maine, and [Robins] was one of them,” said MacDonald. “We sat down and had a meeting and I think he refocused on what he has to do to be a good player.
“When you’re not playing well I think you sometimes forget what your role is. So he just had to get refocused on his role.”
With the game tied at one early in the third, Lowell broke things open. Mike Pandolfo took a home run pass from Rene Gauthier and skated in alone on Merrimack goaltender Casey Guenther (42 saves) and placed a snap shot over the goalie’s blocker at 4:45 for the 2-1 lead.
A minute and a half later Jeremy Hall scores his fifth goal of the season, redirecting a Kim Brandvold shot over the shoulder of Guenther.
In the third period, Cleve Kinley added a goal 35 seconds in and Danny O’Brien finished the scoring on the power play at 18:32 to account for the 5-1 final.
As the final buzzer sounded, the Warriors players almost seemed relieved to bring to a close an extremely difficult season. Merrimack finished 1-22-1 in Hockey East play, the worst record in league history, having battled through a season marked with hundreds of man games lost to injury.
“Things will get better,” said Merrimack coach Chris Serino whose Warriors ended the year on a 14-game losing streak. “We played a lot of young kids this season and next year I have all my defensemen back.”
Serino was candid in examining how his team can get better.
“When you have a season like this there’s only one place to put the blame and that’s on me. I’ve got to do my job to make this team better. Before anyone else can correct what they did, I’ve got to correct what I did.”
For Lowell, Thursday win is one of four key wins the River Hawks may need to get into the NCAA tournament. Lowell must win its season finale on Saturday against Providence and then, quite possibly, may need to beat its first round opponent on the road in the best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinals.
Though Lowell’s Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) will likely drop slightly despite the win (Merrimack’s record negatively impacts Lowell’s RPI) the River Hawks do gain a key win in its head-to-head comparison against Harvard. Merrimack is a common opponent for both Lowell and Harvard though the Crimson lost to the Warriors while Lowell swept the three-game season series versus Merrimack.
“Twenty wins is pretty good,” said MacDonald. “Now we need number 21. Every step takes you closer to the tournament. We understand, though, that our margin for error right now is pretty slim.”