NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Led by a dominant first period, Merrimack picked up a much-needed two points with a 5-2 win over Massachusetts-Lowell on Friday. Elliott Sheen opened the scoring when UML (20-10-0, 15-9-0 HE) goalie Doug Carr misplayed a dump-in, allowing Sheen to tap the puck in before Carr could get back to his crease. Kyle Bigos scored 1:18 later and Jeff Velleca knotted another tally before the end of the period to give the Warriors (16-9-6, 12-8-4 HE) an insurmountable three-goal lead. Ryan Flanigan and Velleca scored in the third for Merrimack, while Chad Ruhwedel and Shayne Thompson scored for UML.
With the win, the Warriors are now tied with Maine for the fourth and final home-ice spot with a game in hand. They are 16th in the PairWise as of 10:25 p.m. The River Haws dropped to third with the loss, three points behind first-place Boston College and two points ahead of Merrimack and Maine. They are now sixth in the PairWise.
What I saw
-The Warriors dominated the first period and entered the break with a 3-0 lead. The opening stanza could not have gone any better for Merrimack, and it could not have gone any worse for Lowell. The Warriors controlled play throughout and scored three goals in a period for the first time since Dec. 30. The River Hawks, meanwhile, had all kinds of trouble getting through the neutral zone, resulting in turnovers and icings galore. That allowed Merrimack to constantly be on the attack and prevented Lowell from ever getting anything going offensively. Merrimack outshot UML 13-3 in the opening frame.
-The Warriors scored more than two goals for the first time in five games. Unsurprisingly, they had gone winless in those previous four. The top line of Flanigan, Velleca and Jesse Todd led the offensive resurgence, as they combined for three goals and four assists. Perhaps even more encouraging than the five goals was the fact that the Warriors forechecked hard and were able to get good cycles and long offensive-zone possessions all game. That resulted in 36 shots on goal and 18 grade-A chances.
What I thought
-Merrimack did a very good job getting shots through from the point. Lowell is one of the best shot-blocking teams in the conference, but the Warriors managed to find lanes and get pucks on net. Both their second and third goals came off point shots. On the second, Bigos collected the puck along the boards and fired a shot past Carr from the top of the right circle before the River Hawks could get back in position. On the third, Karl Stollery blasted a one-timer on net from the point, and Velleca was able to bang home the rebound.
-For the first time all year, there is reason to be at least a little bit concerned about Lowell’s defense. The River Hawks have now allowed five or more goals in two of their last three games. Doug Carr, who has been the best goalie in the league for much of the year, has been pulled in both of those games. Although there have been goals he’d like to have back in both games, the bigger problem has been the defense in front of him. The River Hawks have been letting more shots through and they haven’t been doing as good of a job clearing away rebounds. In both tonight’s loss and last Friday’s loss to Boston University, the River Hawks found themselves pinned in deep much more than they’re used to.
What they said
-Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy: “It’s nice when you can score goals. I thought over the last couple weeks, we’ve had plenty of chances. We do scoring chances for and against. We have since Christmas because our goal production was going down. We wanted to make sure we were at least getting grade-A opportunities, which I think we have been over the last couple weeks.”
Dennehy, perhaps more than any other coach in Hockey East, puts very little stock in shots on goal. He is a firm believer in quality chances — however you define them — being a much better indicator of who controlled play. So it’s worth noting that, despite not scoring, he didn’t think his team had been totally inept on offense during the four-game winless streak.
-Dennehy: “You need your older guys to be your best players. You need your seniors to really pick it up. Jesse, Flanny and Velleca, since we put them together… and let’s not forget Elliott Sheen, who’s been out of the lineup twice this year and just literally wills himself to play. Karl Stollery… I know there’s not a lot of flash, maybe not as much flash as other D in our league. Literally, count the minutes. Nobody, there is not a player in our league, who’s not a goaltender, that logs more minutes than Karl Stollery. Period. End of discussion.”
What started as a question about Merrimack’s senior top line turned into Dennehy stating his case for why Stollery should be a Hockey East first-teamer. For what it’s worth, I agree with him. Stollery is a workhorse, and you rarely see him make a mistake.
What else you should know
-These two teams conclude their season series Saturday night in Lowell. The River Hawks can clinch home ice for the Hockey East quarterfinals with a win or a Maine loss, while Merrimack can clinch home ice with a win and a Maine loss.