NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – For the first time ever, Massachusetts-Lowell is alone in first heading into the final weekend of the regular season. The River Hawks took over the top spot and clinched home ice by beating Merrimack 3-1 on Sunday. They also moved up to fourth in the Pairwise. The Warriors remain in sixth place, three points out of a home ice spot.
Josh Holmstrom scored twice in the first period to give Lowell (21-9-2, 15-8-2 HE) an early 2-0 lead. The first goal came 6:58 in when he set up in front of the net and redirected a Joe Houk shot from the left halfwall. A little more than four minutes later, he scored on the power play when Scott Wilson found him alone in front. Lowell upped the lead to 3-0 seven minutes into the second when Joseph Pendenza fed a charging Greg Amlong for the freshman defenseman’s first career goal. Shawn Bates cut the lead to 3-1 early in the third, but that was as close as Merrimack (14-14-6, 12-10-3 HE) would get.
What I saw
-The River Hawks dominated 5-on-5 play in the first, but the Warriors did manage to draw three power plays. Unfortunately for them, they couldn’t take advantage. They got set up a few times, but they struggled to get shots through as Lowell did a great job getting in lanes. On the two occasions that the Warriors did a get a shot on goal, they didn’t have enough traffic to collect a rebound or make the save tough for Connor Hellebuyck (31 saves). After the game, Lowell coach Norm Bazin said those penalty kills helped give his team some momentum.
-Joseph Pendenza registered two assists and now ranks third in Hockey East with 28 points in conference play. He has been one of the hottest players in the league down the stretch, as he now has six goals and 16 assists in Lowell’s last 16 games. He also has an eight-game point streak. A week and a half ago, I wrote about the conference awards races and didn’t have Pendenza on my First or Second Team, although I did at least mention him. Now, he has to be at least on the Second Team, and he could even have a case for First Team depending on what happens next weekend.
-The Warriors came out flying in the third period and were definitely the better team in the period, but the game was already too far out of reach at that point. Rhett Bly set up Bates on a 2-on-0 just 22 seconds into the period to make it 3-1, and the Warriors kept the pressure on for the next 10-12 minutes. They just couldn’t make it a one-goal game, though. Hellebuyck made some big saves, and he also got some help from the post on a Justin Mansfield slap shot through traffic. Bazin said after the game that his team definitely bent in the third, but they never broke.
What I thought
-Josh Holmstrom was a force, and not just on his two goals. He wreaked havoc in front of Rasmus Tirronen (31 saves) all game, and the two goals were perfect examples. On both, he just got body position on Merrimack’s defense and set up shop a couple feet outside the crease. That was a trend all game, though, as he came close to scoring on several other deflections and rebounds. In the first period alone, he registered six shots on goal from the grade-A area. It’s easy for Holmstrom to get overshadowed by some of Lowell’s other forwards — namely Pendenza, Scott Wilson and Riley Wetmore — but Sunday demonstrated how much of an effect he can have on a game.
-The River Hawks have to be considered the favorite to win not just the Hockey East regular-season title, but the tournament title as well. They’ve clearly been the best team in the conference over the last three months, as they’ve gone 17-2-1 since Dec. 8. They had one bad weekend at the beginning of February when they lost road games at Merrimack and Maine, but they’ve now won seven straight since then. During that winning streak, they’ve swept BU and Merrimack and beaten BC on the road. The River Hawks certainly have the ingredients to be a championship team — depth up front, strong defense, good special teams, great goaltending.
-It’s safe to write off the Warriors as a contender for an at-large bid (they’re now 32nd in the Pairwise), and it’s going to be safe to write them off as a Hockey East tournament contender if they don’t find some offense fast. They’ve scored just eight goals in their last six games, highlighting their lack of offensive depth. Mike Collins is one of the best forwards in the league, but no other Merrimack forward has more than seven goals or 16 points. So when Collins goes quiet, as he has during this six-game stretch, Merrimack’s offense slows to a standstill. Even with Collins going, the Warriors don’t have the offense that the five teams ahead of them have. Without him going, they’re really in trouble. If they’re going to challenge for a title, other guys need to step up.
What they said
-Lowell coach Norm Bazin: “Tonight certainly wasn’t a work of art, but we found a way to get it done. It was a difficult game to play. Credit to them. We came out with the type of start we were looking for. We found a way on special teams. Those were certainly some positives I thought helped us along the way and helped us to a win tonight.”
-Bazin on this being the latest Lowell has ever been alone in first: “I’m glad. It’s a nice feather in the cap maybe for some other year, to look back on it. Right now, it’s about playing your best hockey when it counts most. That’s what we keep reminding our guys of. I think there’s a lot of guys who are making the right plays, making the honest plays, and believing in each other. That goes a long way in playoffs.”
-Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy: “I think it took us too long to join the battle. I thought once we joined the battle, we made a game of it. But you have to play hard. Holy smokes. I don’t think I could play in that. Even back in the day, I couldn’t play in that. Wouldn’t have been my type of game. I was pretty soft.”
What else you should know
-Dennehy sat forwards Brian Christie and Josh Myers, both of whom had dressed for all but one game this season. After the game, Dennehy elected not to discuss his reasons for sitting the pair.