NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — The nation’s hottest college hockey team doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of letting up.
Sparked by two goals by junior Josh Holmstrom and a 31-save performance by rookie netminder Connor Hellebuyck, Massachusetts-Lowell completed a weekend sweep of rival Merrimack with a 3-1 win in front of an announced sellout crowd of 2,489 at Lawler Arena.
The win extends the River Hawks’ win streak to six games and improves their record to 17-2-1 in the last 20 games. It also propels Lowell past New Hampshire into sole first place in Hockey East with two games remaining.
Lowell also becomes the first team in the ever-so-tight Hockey East race to clinch home ice for the quarterfinal round.
“A couple of weeks ago, we earned ourselves a spot in the playoffs,” said Lowell coach Norm Bazin. “Tonight, we earned ourselves a home-ice spot.”
That, though, doesn’t mean Bazin is ready to look too far forward.
“We haven’t talked about standings all season, so there’s no reason to start at the 11th hour,” Bazin said. “We just want to be playing our best hockey when it matters most – that’s the playoffs.”
Following Friday’s 4-0 loss at Lowell’s Tsongas Center, the team’s third straight, Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy made some major shakeups to his lineup. Dennehy sat Justin Myers and Brian Christie, each of whom had played in all but one game on the season, and chose to start Rasmus Tirronen (31 saves), who hadn’t started a game since Jan. 11.
After the game, when asked about if he’d elaborate on the lineup decisions, Dennehy’s answer was direct.
“No,” said Dennehy. “You’ve got to ask the question, but no.”
Lowell took control of the game early as Holmstrom struck twice, both goals from right in front of the Merrimack net. His first at 6:58 was a perfect redirect of a Joseph Pendena shot from a bad angle along the left half boards. His second, on the power play, was a rebound that he poked right between the legs of Tirronen.
The start was exactly what Bazin hoped for.
“The start is extremely important against [Merrimack] because if you’re playing from behind, they’re stifling,” said Bazin. “That was a major point [tonight].”
In the second, the River Hawks extended the lead on a hustle play. Skating two-on-two over the blue line, Pendenza feathered a puck to the right post where defenseman Gregory Amlong had beat his man and redirected past Tirronen for the 3-0 lead. It was Amlong’s first career goal.
Merrimack had one of its few grade ‘A’ opportunities of the first 40 minutes late in the frame as Shawn Bates was left along at the right post. One-timing the puck, Hellebuyck quickly moved right to left to deny the bid with his left pad.
In the third, the Warriors struck early to put themselves back in the game. Bates picked up a pass at the defensive blue line and skated two-on-nothing with Rhett Bly. Bates ended up giving the puck to Bly, but got it back in the goal mouth to bury his sixth goal of the season just 22 seconds into the frame.
From there, the Merrimack pressure was intense.
Merrimack finished the frame with 19 shots, which didn’t include a Jordan Mansfield wrister that clanged off the crossbar with 7:23 remaining. Hellebuyck, though, held strong to earn his 13th victory in as many decisions.
To add insult to injury for the Warriors, senior defenseman Kyle Bigos was assessed a five-minute major and game misconduct for contact to the head after the final buzzer. Being his third game misconduct of the season, the senior will have to sit out the next game, which just so happens to be senior night.
Catapulting to first, Lowell (21-9-2, 15-8-2 Hockey East) is a point ahead of New Hampshire for first place in Hockey East and two points ahead of third-place Boston College and Merrimack. Lowell will have the opportunity to become the first team outside of BC, Boston University, UNH and Maine to capture the Hockey East regular-season title next weekend when it faces Providence in a home-and-home series beginning Friday night in Lowell.
Merrimack (14-14-6, 12-10-3 Hockey East) is now winless in five straight (0-4-1) and remains in sixth place in Hockey East. The Warriors are three points out of the final home ice playoff spot and will face Massachusetts next weekend beginning Friday night at Lawler Arena.
“We’ve played good teams,” said Dennehy when asked about his team’s struggles of late. “It took us too long to join the battle [tonight]. Once we joined the battle, we made a game of it, but you’ve got to play hard.”