College Hockey:
Vellaca’s two goals, two assist, lead Merrimack over Mass.-Lowell

— After a thrilling, fast-paced 3-0 Massachusetts-Lowell win over Merrimack two weekends ago, there was plenty of reason to believe that Friday’s rematch and first game of a weekend home-and-home would be a thrilling replay.

Instead, the contest was a sloppy game, particularly for the visiting River Hawks, who consistently turned the puck over as Merrimack marched to a 5-2 victory in front of a sold-out Lawler Arena crowd.

The Merrimack (16-9-6, 12-8-4 Hockey East) win, combined with victories by Boston College and Boston University as well as a loss by Maine, completely jumbles the top of the Hockey East standings with three games left in the regular season.

The Eagles hold a two-point lead over BU, while Mass.-Lowell (20-10-0, 15-9-0 Hockey East) drops to third, three points behind BC. Merrimack and Maine are now tied for the final home ice spot, with the Warriors holding a game-in-hand and the tiebreaker thanks to a 2-0-1 record versus the Black Bears in the regular season series.

All of that though, is of little concern to Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy.

“I’m not smart enough to multi-task,” said Dennehy, when asked how closely he’s following the Hockey East standings. “I’ve followed this league since its first year. It always comes down to the final weekend.

On Friday, Merrimack made Mass.-Lowell pay for each and every mistake, scoring four of its five goals when the River Hawks turned the puck over in the defensive zone. At the same time, the Warriors defense smothered Lowell, allowing just 19 shots while plastering the Mass.-Lowell net with 37.

Friday was also a night for Merrimack’s offense to break out. After scoring just four goals total in the previous four games, Merrimack reached the five-goal plateau for the first time since a 6-2 win over Maine in early January.

“Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been getting the chances,” said Dennehy. “But sometime the puck goes in and sometimes it doesn’t. You have to take advantage when it does.”

The River Hawks opened the game with sloppy play, icing the puck six times in the game’s first four minutes, putting the team on its heels. Mass.-Lowell then made two critical turnovers in a 73-second span that gave the Warriors a 2-0 lead.

The first came from stalwart goaltender Doug Carr (24 saves), who looked like a deer in headlights while trying to play the puck behind the net. Waiting far too long, he fired it off Rhett Bly and the puck caromed to Ellliott Sheen, who quickly deposited it into the net for a 1-0 lead at 6:50

Merrimack kept the pressure on, and a failed clearing attempt by the River Hawks defense led to Jesse Todd feeding massive defenseman Kyle Bigos at the blue line, who one-timed a shot through traffic at 8:08 for the 2-0 lead.

The Warriors then struck on a power play at 17:52. Karl Stollery’s shot from the center point became an easy rebound for Jeff Velleca to poke home and extended Merrimack’s lead to 3-0 through one.

Merrimack held a lop-sided 13-3 advantage in shots on goal in the first.

The River Hawks had their chances to climb back into the game early in the second when back-to-back Merrimack penalties led to nearly four straight minutes of power play for Mass.-Lowell. Merrimack’s defense though, blocked shot after shot, allowing just one puck to get through on goaltender Joe Cannata (17 saves), while the Warriors forecheckers created multiple quality chances short-handed.

Any hopes of a miracle comeback for Mass.-Lowell were dashed in the opening seconds of the third when yet another defensive zone turnover led to a quick shot and a rebound goal for Ryan Flanigin 22 seconds into the frame.

That spelled the end of the night for Carr, who was replaced by Marc Boulanger. It was the second straight week that Carr was pulled in the series opener. He gave up six goals to Boston University in a 7-4 loss last Friday before Mass.-Lowell rebounded for a 4-2 win over the Terriers on Saturday.

Lowell got a goal back on a Chad Ruhwedel power-play tally at 6:31, but Velleca scored his second of the game at 7:46 when a Tim Corcoran turnover would up in the net, Merrimack’s fourth goal of the night off a turnover. Velleca finished with a career-high four points (two goals, two assists).

Mass.-Lowell’s Matt Ferreira had the game’s final tally at 15:11.

The night of mistakes is one that Mass.-Lowell coach Norm Bazin hopes to quickly put behind his team. The fact these same two teams face off again on Saturday at the Tsongas Center underscores the importance of moving on.

“Thankfully for us, the games are worth two points whether you lose by five or you lose by one,” said Bazin. “That’s how we’re going to look at it.”

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