LOWELL, Mass. — There was still about a minute remaining in Friday’s game between No. 8 Merrimack and No. 7 Massachusetts-Lowell when the cheer of “We’re number 1!” broke out from the River Hawks’ student section.
With Lowell leading 3-0 after a Riley Wetmore empty-net goal with 1:34 remaining, the Lowell faithful – SmartPhones in hand – were aware that top-ranked Boston University had fallen 3-2 at home against Massachusetts.
The combined results propelled Lowell to sole possession of first place in Hockey East for the first time this late in the season in school history.
While pleasant – particularly given that the River Hawks finished last place a season ago – being in first place on February 10 isn’t very important to first-year coach Norm Bazin.
“If you tell me that after the regular season, I will be smiling,” said Bazin.
The game itself lived up to its billing.
The two Merrimack Valley rivals are playing one another while ranked nationally for the first time in the storied history of the two programs. As the two teams were scoreless entering the third, it took two Derek Arnold goals for Lowell in the third – his 14th and 15th to lead the team – Wetmore’s empty netter and a 31-save shutout by River Hawks’ netminder Doug Carr to earn the victory.
Each team struggled to beat the opposing netminder for the game’s first 40 minutes, but it took just 55 seconds for the River Hawks to seize the lead in the third, albeit on a controversial play.
Lowell’s Scott Wilson sent a puck from the right wing boards on net that Merrimack netminder Joe Cannata (39 saves) stopped. The rebound bounced towards the left post where a falling Arnold was headed.
The puck hit his left shoulder and bounced into the net. Immediately, referee Tim Low disallowed the goal thinking it had been directed in by Arnold’s arm. After a lengthy video review, though, Low decided there was no intent on Arnold’s part, allowing the goal. It was the second video review to go against Merrimack in the game after the Warriors had a goal disallowed for a high stick late in the second.
“That’s why we have video review,” said Bazin. “Two had gone the other way over the course of the season, so it was nice to get that one.”
Arnold added a power-play goal just three seconds after Merrimack’s Karl Stollery was called for boarding with three minutes remaining. That was the insurance goal Bazin and his Lowell team hoped for.
“[Merrimack] is used to playing in close games and they thrive in those types of contests,” said Bazin. “So it was important to get the insurance marker.”
Despite neither team able to score in the first period, the frame was entertaining for the fans with the clubs combining for 52 shot attempts and 30 shots on goal – 15 for each team.
Both goaltenders were called upon to make huge stops, especially Cannata. Wilson was stopped on a one-timer just 1:07 into the game and Joseph Pendenza was stopped on a breakaway bid by Cannata midway through the period.
Merrimack’s Shawn Bates, though, forced Carr to make the save of the game at 11:20 when he turned a 2-on-1 into a breakaway. Carr, though, stuck with the play despite a nifty move by Bates and turned aside the shot.
“The puck got across and I was sliding over trying to get to the middle of the net,” said Carr. “He took it against my momentum, he pulled it back and I was just able to throw the left leg out.”
In the second, the River Hawks tilted the ice in their favor, outshooting Merrimack, 17-5, forcing Cannata to remain sharp. He made point-blank saves on Matt Ferreria and Josh Holstrom early in the frame and was able to get his left pad on a David Vallorani bid with 1:45 remaining.
It was the Warriors that seemingly got the game’s first goal. After Shayne Thompson was whistled for tripping at 15:18, it took just seconds for Dan Kolomatis to beat Carr. After video review, though, it was ruled that Merrimack’s Josh Myers got his stick on the shot while it was above the crossbar, sending the game to the third scoreless.
Securing first place, the River Hawks now have their eyes set on Saturday’s opponent, Maine. The River Hawks beat the Black Bears twice in Orono earlier this season and could secure the first-ever season sweep of Maine with a win Saturday.
While Lowell moved to first place, Merrimack missed its opportunity to jump into a tie with the Terriers on Friday.
“Tonight was one of those games [decided by] a bounce either way,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. “Against a team of [Lowell's] quality, I think we showed pretty well tonight. It was just the bounce of the puck.”