LOWELL, Mass. — The hangover from winning the regular-season title for Massachusetts-Lowell lasted nearly two periods and that’s probably two periods more than River Hawks’ coach Norm Bazin hoped for.
But the sign of a good team is often its ability to score in bunches and that’s exactly what the River Hawks did, scoring three goals in a span of 4:37 in the third period – including the first two 21 seconds apart – to break open a 1-1 tie and win the first game of the best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series against Maine 4-2 in front of 3,070 at Lowell’s Tsongas Center.
Struggling to generate offense early on, Lowell tied the game on a power-play goal late in the second before exploding with goals from Scott Wilson (1:52), his second of the game, as well as Joseph Pendenza (2:13) and Josh Holmstrom (6:29) to begin the third period.
“Whenever you get two quick goals, it changes the flow of the game,” said Bazin. “It was a momentum charge on our bench to get two quick goals like that.”
Maine’s Devin Shore scored on the power play with 47.1 seconds remaining, but the hole was simply too large.
The River Hawks need just one more win to advance to the Hockey East semifinals at the TD Garden for the first time since 2009.
“We’re excited about today, but it’s over,” said Bazin. “We know how difficult it is to finish off a series.”
The fact that Lowell drew Maine wasn’t the best of omens coming into the playoffs. In tournament history, the River Hawks have a 1-14-0 mark against the Black Bears, including a 1-9-0 record in quarterfinal games. Many of those games occurred in the early days of the league when the Black Bears were a power and Lowell was forced to head to the road.
That is upside down in this season as the River Hawks earned the home ice two weekends ago. That hardly meant this would be an easy game or series, especially given that the Black Bears took the season series two games to one.
The game was tied through 40 minutes of play as each club traded power-play goals.
Maine opened the scoring in the first period on its second man-advantage of the night. Defenseman Jake Rutt took a feed from Shore and wristed it towards the net. The puck hit the left post, but as it bounced back towards Lowell netminder Connor Hellebuyck (24 saves), the rookie tender swiped at it, knocking it into the net at 13:52 for a 1-0 lead.
The teams traded opportunities, none more glaring than Kyle Beattie’s for Maine at 5:55 of the second. Alone in the slot, Beattie couldn’t corral a perfect pass with a wide-open net awaiting.
“It would’ve been huge if we could’ve gone up by two there,” said Beattie.
After that missed opportunity, the game changed on the hinge of penalties. After having the first four power plays of the game, Maine took the next three penalties, the third of which led to Lowell’s equalizer.
Wilson scored his first of the night through a screen at 17:20. Maine’s Mark Nemec and Lowell’s Holmstrom jostled in the crease, taking the eyes away from Maine netminder Martin Ouellette (32 saves). The play was reviewed for nearly four minutes, checking to see if there was interference between Holmstrom and Ouellette before finally allowing the goal to stand.
While Maine coach Tim Whitehead was unhappy with allowing the goal to stand, he also wasn’t thrilled with the penalties his club took to allow Lowell back in the game.
“Penalties are the difference in the game,” said Whitehead, whose team scored twice on the power play, but allowed the tying goal and an insurance tally while shorthanded. “Stick penalties – we can’t afford those.”
Maine now has its back to the proverbial wall, needing wins on Friday and Sunday if the Black Bears’ season is to remain alive. It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch given that the Black Bears fell behind Lowell in a quarterfinal series in 2010 only to win the final two games of the series. That, though, was a much different matchup in Maine between two considerably different teams.
“A win tomorrow is worth the same as tonight,” said Whitehead. “That’s our objective and goal, to push these guys to Game 3. Then you never know what can happen.”