LOWELL, Mass. — Massachusetts-Lowell and Merrimack battled to a scoreless tie for two periods before goals by Adam Chapie and Derek Arnold broke the game open.
Arnold and Colin Wright added empty-net goals for the final score of 4-0.
Connor Hellebuyck, Hockey East’s reigning Player of the Month, stopped 31 shots for his fourth shutout of the season and twelfth straight win.
Lowell entered the contest in a four-way tie for first place in Hockey East with Boston College, New Hampshire and Providence. Merrimack lurked only a single point behind. With BC defeating Providence and Vermont tying New Hampshire, Lowell now shares first place with only Boston College.
“It was a playoff-style hockey game,” Lowell coach Norm Bazin said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of room out there. Thankfully for us, the dam broke in the third period and we were able to start generating some offense.”
The River Hawks have now posted a 16-2-1 record over their last 19 games. They’ve become especially stingy in their defensive zone, allowing only five goals over their last five games, all wins.
Although Hellebuyck recorded the shutout, his teammates deserved a big assist.
“It’s still a shutout and it’s a team shutout,” Bazin said. “Everybody is chipping in, but you still got to stop [the shots] whether you get 16 or 25 or 35. Credit to him and the whole team for paying the price at the net front.”
With the loss, the Warriors fall to sixth place as Boston University leapfrogged them with a 3-1 win over Vermont.
A month earlier, Merrimack defeated Lowell 1-0 in a similar defensive battle.
“Whoever scores first in this series has a really good chance of winning,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said. “Both teams play pretty good defense.”
Now three points out of first with five teams ahead of them, the Warriors have likely seen their first-place chances evaporate.
“If I knew that,” Dennehy said, “I’d be retired tomorrow because I’d have the Mega-Millions number. I love math, but [to try to figure that], my head would explode.”
Merrimack outshot the hosts in the first period 11-5 building the entire margin during two power plays. Grade ‘A’ opportunities, however, were few and far between. Merrimack’s Vinny Scotti and Rhett Bly got off two from the doorstep and at the other end Josh Holmstrom countered, all to no avail.
Both sides generated considerably more top chances in the second, fueled in part by three River Hawk power plays to Merrimack’s one, including a 47-second four-on-three. Once again, though, stellar team defenses and goaltenders Sam Marotta and Hellebuyck proved impregnable.
Chapie scored the game-winner at 5:50 of the third. Defenseman Jake Suter carried the puck down from the right point and fed Chapie in front. As the freshman was being upended, he roofed a one-timer into the top of the net.
Less than three minutes later, Arnold redirected a Ryan McGrath shot from the left point past Marotta for a near-insurmountable two-goal lead.
With 3:33 remaining and a faceoff in the offensive zone, Dennehy pulled Marotta and with 2:39 remaining, Arnold iced the game with the first of the empty-netters.
The two teams complete their home-and-home weekend series as well as their season series on Sunday at Merrimack.