LOWELL, Mass. — It’s not too often that NHL teams take chances on drafting collegiate goaltenders, so when you have two goalies squaring off whose rights are held by NHL clubs, expectations for a goaltender’s duel are pretty high.
On Thursday, fans expecting such a duel got one and then some as Providence rookie Jon Gillies, a draft pick of Calgary last June, tangled with Massachusetts-Lowell rookie Connor Hellebuyck, whose rights are owned by Winnipeg.
The result was a game featuring 79 saves and just three goals.
For the host River Hawks, fortunately, two of those goals came from forward Ryan McGrath and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel as Lowell skated past the Friars 2-1 in front of 5,694 at the Tsongas Center.
While Hellebuyck’s 31 saves were impressive in the victory, Gillies broke his career high of 44 set last Saturday, making 48 stops on Thursday, many of the spectacular variety.
“I thought both goalies were excellent tonight and I thought that’s why the game was so close,” said Lowell coach Norm Bazin. “Both goalies had excellent saves that I’ll have to watch back on film. They kept it close and that’s why it was exciting right to the finish.”
It was so close, in fact, that neither team scored in the game’s first two periods. It wasn’t until the River Hawks were put on the power play early in the third that either club could celebrate.
With the man-advantage, Lowell (12-7-1, 6-6-1 Hockey East) took advantage of a Providence (9-9-3, 7-5-2 Hockey East) turnover, moving the puck from the right point, across the zone and down to McGrath. Patient, he waited for Gillies to move and fired a high wrist shot short side at 2:10 to give the River Hawks the 1-0 edge.
That lead lasted just over four minutes. Russ Mauermann and Mark Jankowski worked a little give and go with Mauermann eventually burying a shot from the left post to even the score at 6:13.
But 26 seconds later, Lowell netted what held up as the game-winner. Ruhwedel, handling the puck at the right point, feathered a shot that appeared to be going wide and deflected off the stick of a Providence defender.
Said Bazin, the ability to solve Gillies, if just for the two tallies, was critical in a low-scoring game.
“We made a point of telling our guys to ignore the first two [scoreless] periods,” said Bazin. “We missed a couple of opportunities [early]. We parked our emotions on that and came out hard in the third and managed a win.”
Both teams traded quality chances in a scoreless opening period. On the power play, Lowell’s Derek Arnold was stopped by Gillies on a point-blank shot from inside the left faceoff dot at 11:05.
With 1:07 remaining, it was Hellebuyck who came up big, stopping Noel Acciari with the shoulder on a breakaway attempt.
The River Hawks held a 14-8 advantage in shots through one period.
The second produced considerably more chances, particularly for the River Hawks. Shayne Thompson was stopped on a nice wraparound attempt 4:51. Though Gillies right toe was in the net, video replay showed the puck never crossed the goal line.
At the midway point, Lowell had the best chance of the game to that point. Shorthanded, Lowell blocked a shot at the point and skated three-on-one. Joseph Pendenza fed a perfect pass to Adam Chapie at the right post, but Gillies stretched across the crease to make the stop and hold the game scoreless.
All in all, Lowell carried the play considerably, but easily could have been on the losing end because of Gillies play.
According to Providence coach Nate Leaman, relying on a goaltender to steal games isn’t a good formula.
“We’ve given up 95 shots in our last two games,” said Leaman. “We better not [rely on Gillies]. We were very poor defensively our last two games. We’re not finishing a lot of hits through the neutral zone and our ‘D’ are seeing a lot of speed.
“We’re probably not going to practice tomorrow and we go up to UNH [on Saturday]. We’ll have a good video session tomorrow and hopefully, regroup.”