LOWELL, Mass. — Merrimack and Massachusetts-Lowell fought tooth and nail for 65 minutes Saturday night and walked away with a 2-2 tie. Merrimack’s Mike Collins opened the scoring 4:45 in when he tipped in a Kyle Bigos shot from the point. The River Hawks (20-10-1, 15-9-1 HE) answered midway through the second when Matt Ferreira found David Vallorani all alone in the slot. Collins struck again with 6:45 left in the game to give the Warriors (16-9-7, 12-8-5 HE) a 2-1 lead, but Josh Holmstrom tied it on a late power play when he slid home a Scott Wilson centering pass.
With the tie, the Warriors took three of four points on the weekend, following their 5-2 win Friday. The Merrimack River rivals concluded their season series at an even 1-1-1. The River Hawks now sit in third in the standings with 31 points. They can clinch home ice for the Hockey East quarterfinals with one point next weekend against Providence. The Warriors sit in fifth with 29 points, one behind Maine for the fourth and final home-ice spot. They have a game in hand on the Black Bears and can clinch home ice with three points next weekend against Massachusetts. As of 12:35 a.m., Lowell is tied for fourth in the PairWise and Merrimack is tied for 14th.
What I saw
-A great game. It wasn’t a wide-open contest with tons of scoring chances or anything like that, but it was a great defensive game with very few mistakes. Play was even throughout, and it never felt like either team was really dictating the pace. That had a lot more to do with sound defense at both ends than sloppy offense, though. Both teams gave a good effort on offense and made good passes; there just wasn’t any space to create quality chances. This was exactly the type of game you’d expect from these two teams, and we finally got it in their third meeting.
-All four goals came on power plays. Continuing the theme of “this is what you’d expect,” special teams played a huge role. The Warriors scored three power-play goals on the weekend after not having scored any in their previous six games. Meanwhile, the River Hawks have now allowed eight power-play goals in their last five games. Coach Norm Bazin has pointed to the penalty kill as an area that needs to improve each of the last couple weeks, but it’s still struggling. The River Hawks know they can be a good penalty-killing team because they were earlier in the season, but they’re running out of time to right the ship.
What I thought
-Lowell rebounded from a poor defensive effort Friday night with a great one Saturday night. Most notably, the River Hawks blocked 24 shots, as they got back to getting in lanes and collapsing around goalie Doug Carr. Bazin said they simply weren’t quick enough to get in lanes Friday, but that he was glad to see his defense rise to the challenge Saturday. It’s interesting to note that the last two weekends have played out the same way for Lowell — a sub-par defensive effort and a loss on Friday, followed by a much better effort and a better result on Saturday.
-Although the Warriors trail Maine by a point for the fourth and final home-ice spot, they still control their own destiny. The Black Bears only have one game next weekend, so the highest they can get is 32 points. Merrimack can get to 33, and it also owns the head-to-head tiebreaker against Maine.
What they said
Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy: “Obviously you knew you were gonna get a much more concerted effort out of the River Hawks tonight, and I was really proud of the way our guys responded. That was playoff hockey. That was a playoff weekend. To play a team as good as Lowell as well as we did, that’s a team that we as coaches believed we could beat. That’s a really good team, and so are we.”
Lowell coach Norm Bazin: “I thought, more importantly than the point, was getting back to playing some decent hockey. [Friday] night was a disappointing effort, and that’s probably the first time this year with the exception of [a 3-2 loss to UConn in October] that the effort was lackluster. So to come back with a good effort tonight was very important to us.”