NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – Massachusetts-Lowell’s 11-game unbeaten streak came to an end Friday, as Merrimack (11-10-5, 9-6-2 Hockey East) downed the River Hawks 1-0 in a defensive struggle. Justin Hussar scored the game’s lone goal with 12:20 left to play when he took a pass from Rhett Bly and beat Doug Carr (26 saves) with a wrist shot from the left circle. Sam Marotta stopped all 25 shots from Lowell (14-8-2, 8-7-2 HE) to earn his second shutout of the season.
What I saw
-Lowell went 0-for-8 on the power play, and that was clearly the story of the game. Most notably, the River Hawks had two power plays in the final 2:24 of the game, including 10 seconds of a 5-on-3. They pulled Carr before the start of the first power play, so it was really 6-on-4 for 2:24 and 6-on-3 for 10 seconds. Marotta made a few big saves, the Merrimack penalty kill came up with some key blocks, and the River Hawks struggled to get to rebounds. That was really the story of the whole game when they were on the power play. They’d get a chance or two, but they weren’t quite aggressive enough to turn it into sustained pressure. At one point in the second period, they had four power plays in an 8:32 span and failed to capitalize.
-Both defenses played great. The vast majority of shots both ways came from the outside, and both teams did a good job blocking shots too. There was certainly some sloppy play at times, but there was also some good back-and-forth action. It just didn’t lead to any back-and-forth scoring chances because both defenses played the initial rush well and both teams got great backchecking all night. This was more or less the game that both teams wanted to play — obviously Lowell would’ve liked to be better on the power play, and Merrimack certainly would’ve preferred to not take so many penalties.
What I thought
-This was a great bounce-back game for Merrimack after losing 6-2 to New Hampshire last Saturday, especially when it came to defense. The Warriors have played great defense since about Thanksgiving, so it was important for them to put a bad defensive game behind them and get right back on track with a strong effort. Needless to say, they did just that. They’ve now gone since Nov. 16 without allowing three or more goals in back-to-back games, and they’ve held opponents to two goals or fewer in 11 of the 15 games during that span. They now rank third in the league in team defense, and Marotta ranks fourth in the league with a .923 save percentage.
-It’s tough for the River Hawks to see their 11-game unbeaten streak come to an end, but I actually think there are reasons for them to be optimistic after Friday’s loss. They entered Friday having allowed three or more goals in four of their previous five games, and last weekend they gave up eight goals in two games against Northeastern and looked downright terrible on defense at times. Their offense, by contrast, had scored four or more goals in six of the previous seven games. So while it’s never good to be shut out, I’m not ready to say that the River Hawks are struggling to score. Let’s see how the next couple games go. Likewise, it might be premature to say they’ve totally figured out their defense, but Friday’s game was certainly a step in the right direction, which is encouraging. Doug Carr also played more like the Doug Carr of last season and not the one who had a sub-.900 save percentage entering Friday night.
What they said
-Merrimack goalie Sam Marotta on the late Lowell power plays: “You know they’re just gonna try to throw it on the net. You have to battle. They did a great job all night getting in front of me. I couldn’t see many shots. But my d-men, they just blocked shots. They might’ve had more saves than I did. They were a huge part of the win tonight.”
-Lowell coach Norm Bazin: “Tonight obviously wasn’t good enough. We had plenty of chances to finish and we just couldn’t. Their goaltender didn’t give up too many second chances, and we weren’t good enough on our first chances. Overall, I think it was one of those games where, you know when we’re not winning faceoffs or battles, that it’s not gonna go your way. That’s the way it went tonight.”
What else you should know
-With the win, the Warriors are now tied with Providence for fourth in Hockey East, and they have a game in hand on the Friars. The River Hawks sit in sixth, two points back of Merrimack and Providence. The loss dropped Lowell from eighth to 13th in the Pairwise as of 11 p.m. ET.
-After the game, Bazin said that freshman goalie Connor Hellebuyck is now week-to-week. Last weekend, Bazin said Hellebuyck was day-to-day with an undisclosed injury.