LOWELL, Mass. — If Massachusetts-Lowell head coach Blaise MacDonald needed a word to describe the outlook for his club midway through the game, it’s likely the one that would come to mind would be “ominous.”
That’s why it’s good to have a big-name player living up to the reputation of his roots.
Mark Pandolfo, cousin of NHL star Jay and AHL journeyman Mike, proved his worth scoring two goals including the game-winner as the No. 16 River Hawks overcame a 3-1 deficit midway through the game to beat Rensselaer, 5-3.
The win split a tough weekend non-league series after Lowell lost to No. 18 Colgate, 6-2, on the road on Friday before traveling back for Sunday’s matinee.
“It’s nice to get back home here after a tough road trip Friday night,” said MacDonald, whose River Hawk teams are now 2-3-0 in home openers. “I give my team a lot of credit for their mental toughness during a tough road trip to come back and get the ‘W’ today.”
Pandolfo, who also netted one of Lowell’s two goals in Friday’s loss, scored Lowell’s first goal of the game after the River Hawks fell behind, 2-0. And then, using pure grit and hustle, he was rewarded with a good bounce to get the game winner.
With the game knotted at three midway through the third, Pandolfo found a loose puck right in front of the net. He lunged forward to tip the puck toward the goal as RPI’s netminder, Mathis Lange (37 saves) tried a poke-check. Getting a little assistance from linemate Andrew Martin, who lift-checked Lange’s stick, and then a bounce off the RPI defenseman crashing the net with Lowell’s Elias Godoy, the puck trickled in to give Lowell its first lead of the young season.
“His toolbox is filled with a lot of good skills and ability,” said MacDonald of Pandolfo, who as a senior is still searching for his first big scoring season. “This could be a real breakthrough year for him.”
After Pandolfo gave the River Hawks the lead, Jason Tejchma one-timed a Bobby Robbins pass 33 seconds later to give Lowell the cushion it would need to hold on down the stretch.
Things didn’t start as well as they finished for Lowell. Despite holding a strong advantage in shots in the early going, it was RPI that jumped out to the 2-0 lead.
Jonathan Ornelas roofed a quick shot from the slot on the power play over a fallen Peter Vetri (24 saves) to give the Engineers a 1-0 lead. It was the third power-play goal that Lowell has allowed on the weekend, a point of concern for MacDonald.
“That was our Achilles heel last year,” said MacDonald of his team’s penalty killing. “The goal we give up tonight, we’re standing right next to the guy. [In that situation], we have to compete harder.”
Early in the second, RPI extended the lead on a Kevin Croxton wrist shot that caught Vetri by surprise, beating the sophomore netminder over the glove hand.
Lowell, though, answered at 7:05 on Pandolfo’s first of the night. But just as quickly as the deficit was reduced, RPI returned the lead to two. Reed Kipp’s blast from the top of the left faceoff circle beat Vetri through traffic at 7:42 for the 3-1 lead.
From that point, though, it was all Lowell.
The River Hawks evened the game before the second intermission thanks to a Martin goal at 11:07 and a Danny O’Brien power-play tally at 17:06.
That, though, set up Pandolfo to play the role of hero and allowed fans to strike up nostalgia of the Pandolfo names that have been offensive powers in Hockey East for more than a decade.
“Ultimately the strongest test of your legacy is the test of thyself,” preached MacDonald of Pandolfo. “He has speed, power, a heavy shot and a quick release. Right now, it’s just believing in himself.”
The win for Lowell averted a weekend sweep by ECACHL opponents and gets the club onto the right foot heading into Hockey East play. Lowell will open up the league slate when it travels to Boston University next Saturday night.
RPI drops its season opener for the third straight year and is now 4-8-0 in season openers under head coach Dan Fridgen. The Engineers will travel to Anchorage, Alaska, for the Nye Frontier Classic. They’ll face host Alaska-Anchorage on Friday and Michigan Tech on Saturday. RPI will not open at home until Oct. 23, against Army.