NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — It was a storybook ending in more ways than one for the Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks.
After opening the season with three losses in their first four Hockey East games, they headed into the third period against Merrimack facing a 1-0 deficit despite holding a 35-15 shot advantage. On the precipice of what could have been a demoralizing fourth league loss, they scored three unanswered goals in the final stanza to post a 3-1 win.
“Going into this game, if you were to script the type of game that would unfold and we would end up getting a W, it couldn’t have been better,” Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald said. “We’ve had a problem fighting ourselves mentally.
“We played great [tonight] over 40 minutes, but didn’t have a lot to show for it. [But] there was no give-up; if anything there was more inspiration. This game should go a long way in our development.”
A setback might have been all too reminiscent of the disastrous start last year in which the team didn’t win its first league game until January 7.
“I had no reservations whatsoever,” MacDonald said. “If we lost that game, 1-0, and played like [we did], that was going to be a massive accomplishment for us. Getting the W obviously quantifies it.”
The storybook win also worked on a personal level for Brian Bova, who grew up just 10 minutes from the Merrimack arena and held memories of playing there in a state championship game. The fourth-liner with seven goals in his first two years at Lowell scored the game-winner to earn first-star honors.
“We felt really good after two periods,” Bova said. “We felt that we’d been taking it to them all night. We were getting a lot of shots. They just weren’t going in. But we knew if we kept working hard, eventually it would come.”
Preceding the Bova game-winner was a key strike by Danny O’Brien, just a minute into the third. From the doorstep, O’Brien converted the rebound of a J.R. Bria shot.
Then at 12:54 Bova got the game-winner after cycling in the corner and beating his man off the boards. Linemate Matt Walsh found him near the left faceoff dot and Bova ripped it into the net.
A minute later, Lowell got an insurance goal when Bobby Robins hit Jeremy Hall with a home-run pass to spring the breakaway. Hall was, in his coach’s words, “money” as he deked Merrimack goaltender Jim Healey and stuffed the puck into the net. Robins had only been cleared to play earlier in the day because of concerns that he might have sustained a fractured larynx.
When asked whether the back-to-back league wins might build momentum for Lowell (3-5-0, 2-3-0 HEA), MacDonald quipped, “It should. We’ve got a couple cupcakes coming up in Maine and UNH.”
Merrimack (3-4-0, 0-2-0 HEA) had been coming off a 5-3 win at Rensselaer, but couldn’t hold off Lowell despite a strong effort by goaltender Jim Healey. Although three of Lowell’s five shots in the third-period went in, all were top-quality chances on which he had little chance. His 35 saves through two periods gave Merrimack a shot.
“As bad as we played, we were in it in the third,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said. “If we could have put some plays together, then Lowell might have rope-a-doped themselves because they’d been buzzing for a good period and a half.”
The plays for Merrimack, however, didn’t happen and Lowell rallied.
“They were more determined than we were,” Dennehy said. “They probably believed they needed that game more to get themselves where they want to be. I don’t know if our guys wanted it as bad.”
Merrimack got off to a great start in the first period, capitalizing on a Lowell turnover in its own zone. Rob Ricci picked off a dreadful pass, broke in, drew goaltender Peter Vetri to himself and slid the puck to Mike Fournier. Fournier, on the right post, stuffed it past a defenseless Vetri. It was Fournier’s first goal of the season, but the sixth point for Ricci, a freshman.
Lowell’s best chance came on the flip side of the Merrimack goal. While the Ricci-Fournier collaboration came at the 2:59 mark, the River Hawks threatened with almost the identical amount of time left in the period. Cleve Kinley, on the right point, found Elias Godoy off the left post, but Godoy couldn’t pull the trigger instantly and Healey recovered to block the shot.
Lowell held a clear advantage in the second period, outshooting Merrimack 17-6, but still could not get on the scoreboard. Todd Fletcher created an excellent opportunity circling around and into the slot, but Healey made the stop.
Later, Kinley and Godoy reversed the attempted first-period collaboration with Godoy firing a pass from the left corner to Kinley on the right post. Kinley, however, was just a shade too low and couldn’t stuff it past Healey.
Providing a breather that under other circumstances might have led to a Merrimack win was a counterpunch by Matt Byrnes. While killing a penalty, the junior picked off a lazy pass to the point, got a step on his defender and set up Derek Pallardy for a shot. Vetri made the save, but Byrnes then drew a Lowell charging penalty in the corner. As was the case for both teams all night, however, the Warriors could not convert on the man advantage.
All of which set the stage for Lowell’s third-period comeback.
Both teams return to action against Maine. Merrimack travels to Orono for its contest on Friday. Lowell is off for the weekend before hosting the Black Bears on the following Friday.