LOWELL, Mass. — A major storyline of this season in Hockey East has been the solid play of both Merrimack and Mass.-Lowell, so when the two clubs faced off Saturday night at Tsongas Arena, there was a lot of curiosity on which team would prove the better.
By games end, there was little doubt: Lowell answered in the affirmative, emphatically.
Behind a career night by top liners Chris Auger (goal, four assists) and Paul Worthington (two goals, one assist) along with second-line center Scott Campbell (two goals, assist), the River Hawks blasted the Warriors, 6-3, much to the delight of the 4,735 Lowell faithful.
“I guess I was in good spots at good times tonight,” said Auger of his five-point game, whose previous high was two points in a game. “It’s just rotation around and the puck wound up on my stick tonight.”
The River Hawks offense was spurred by three power play goals in the game, including two in a first period where coach Blaise MacDonald thought his team put forth a sub-par performance.
“We were on our heels for the first six-to-10 minutes,” said MacDonald. “It’s good when you’re not playing your best to be able to get a lead through your special teams.”
Though Lowell had the better of the chances in the first period, it was Merrimack that got on the board first. Jesse Todd had a seemingly open net on his attempt from the right faceoff dot. Lowell goaltender Nevin Hamilton (30 saves) got across the net to stop the puck but couldn’t control the rebound and Chris Barton crashed the net for the goal at 6:44.
The River Hawks, though, responded in a major way. Jeremy Dehner got Lowell on the board when Auger dug a puck out of the right corner and fed a pass that the senior buried after a nifty move at 10:28 to knot the game at one.
“I was able to get on their [defense] really quick and got to the puck first,” said Auger of the pass, which he made after beating two Merrimack blueliners to the puck. “Dehner was yelling for it and I was able to get the puck to an area he could control. He did the rest.”
After Merrimack’s Ryan Flanigan was whistled for interference at 10:48, Auger buried the rebound of Campbell’s shot from the right wing circle into a wide-open net to give Lowell its first lead.
At 14:48, the Warriors shot themselves in the foot with penalties, as both Stephane Da Costa and Adam Ross were each called for boarding simultaneously, giving the River Hawks a full two-minute five-on-three.
Lowell immediately extended the lead when Auger blasted a cannon of a shot from the point that deflected off Campbell’s leg in traffic just 12 seconds later.
The offensive onslaught continued in the second, as Campbell scored his fifth goal of the season at 7:27, pushing home the rebound of his own shot when Merrimack goaltender Joe Cannata (20 saves) gave away the post. Worthington then scored on a breakaway at 16 minutes even for the 5-1 River Hawks’ lead.
Merrimack, which fought back a week ago against BU to trim a four-goal lead to one late in the game, knew it still had fight to come back. By the middle of the third, it looked like that might again be the case.
Justin Bonitatibus made it 5-2 in the final minute of the second period on a power play, banking a bad angle shot off of Hamilton’s left leg. Jeff Velleca gave Merrimack hope in the third, scoring with 11:22 remaining to climb within two.
However, Worthington snuffed any hope out when he redirected Auger’s centering pass at 12:02 to put things out of reach.
“He can really finish,” MacDonald said of Worthington, who had his first two-goal game of this career on Saturday. “He’s got real skill. He came at their goaltender so fast on the breakaway (Lowell’s fifth goal) and then scored on a play we work on a lot in practice. Those are two really big goals.”
The win improves Lowell’s record to 8-2-1 and 4-1-1 in Hockey East. The River Hawks are one point behind both New Hampshire and Boston College for the top spot in Hockey East.
Merrimack falls to 6-5-0, 3-3-0 in Hockey East. The Warriors are still without a win on the road (0-5-0), despite posting a perfect record (6-0-0) at home.
Regardless of the venue, Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy felt Saturday proved his team isn’t quite ready for prime time.
“That’s the number one team in our league, I think,” Dennehy said of Lowell. “We just didn’t measure up.”