Exactly four weeks ago, Merrimack and Massachusetts-Lowell played a wide-open, pond-hockey game with the River Hawks coming away with a 6-5 victory. If any of the 1,117 fans at the Volpe Center on Tuesday night expected a repeat, they didn’t get it.
Just the same, though, few left disappointed as Lowell and Merrimack battled to a hard-fought, tight-checking 1-1 tie in a crucial battle for positioning in the Hockey East standings.
Both coaches agreed that at this point in the season Tuesday’s hockey is what should be expected.
“I think that [as this point] you have teams that are more diligent with the puck,” said Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald, whose River Hawks played their third overtime game in the last four contests. “Teams take better care of the puck and are more diligent this time of year.”
“There’s not many blowouts come February,” said Merrimack coach Chris Serino, who saw his Warriors improve to 7-2-3 at home this season. “With the playoff picture, everyone is playing for something every night. At this point in the season, it becomes like playoff hockey.”
Though play looked sluggish at times, particularly in the first two periods, the final 20 minutes and overtime provided fans with entertaining hockey, extremely hard hitting and spectacular goaltending at both ends of the ice.
For Lowell, that comes as a relief, as the season has been one nightmare after another between the pipes. Tuesday, rookie Dominic Smart (24 saves) made his fourth straight start, and according to MacDonald, was the “only reason we got a point.”
But the same could be said for Merrimack’s goaltender and MVP candidate Joe Exter. Among his 32 saves were remarkable gems including a Dominic Hasek-like rolling, diving, and somersaulting glove stop on Lowell’s Andrew Martin with 5:53 to play.
“The glove save on Martin was just anticipation of the play,” said Exter, who on Monday was one of only three goaltenders named a finalist for the Walter Brown Award given to the top American-born player in New England. “I knew there was going to be a guy at the back door, so I just tried to get my body over there. Momentum carried me.”
For Exter, Tuesday’s tie was minimal redemption for his last performance against Lowell that saw him surrender a season-high six goals against to Hockey East’s last-place team.
“The last game was probably one of the worst games for me,” said Exter. “Tonight I played the game I wanted to play and the team played well in front of me.
“The last game was one that I had to just put behind me and focus on the next game.”
Tuesday began with an opening period produced little in the way of offense, despite a shot total of 10-9 in favor of the Warriors. Not surprisingly, the period’s only goal was a fluke.
Blake Stewart, working the puck in the corner to the right of Smart, wristed a shot from along the goal line that hit Smart and popped into the air. After hitting Smart in the right shoulder, it bounded into the air, bounced off the crossbar, off Smart and over the goal line for the 1-0 lead.
“I was looking for either [Brendon] Clark or [Lucas] Smith in the middle and when I threw it to the middle, it got deflected and popped up,” said Stewart, who ended a 12-game goalscoring drought. “It went off [Smart’s] back, down in front of the goal line and then trickled into the corner of the net.”
The game stayed that way into the intermission and consequently through the second period, which, according to Serino, was a fact that stirred his nerves.
“I was worried after the second period,” said Serino. “Stewart and [Alex] Sikatchev went in alone [on breakaways] and we should’ve been up two or three to nothing after the second period.
“I knew [Lowell] would come out and throw everything at us in the third.”
Which is exactly what the River Hawks did.
In the frame, Lowell outshot the Warriors, 14-6, and at 5:15 on the power play finally solved Exter. Ben Walter’s was one-timed by Martin in the slot past Exter to end his shutout bid and, more importantly, even the score.
From there, the River Hawks carried most of the play. Shot after shot was peppered on Exter, most of which he stopped, though one, a Peter Hay shot with 4:58 to play, beat him cleanly only to ting off the left post.
As regulation waned, the physical play came to a peak in the final minute when Lowell’s Brad King buried the Warriors’ Tony Johnson from behind in front of his bench. Though Serino wasn’t critical of the officiating, he believed that it was a penalty missed.
“I thought it was a blatant hit from behind,” said Serino. “But [the referee] told me no.”
Similar to the third period, Lowell controlled the overtime and at 2:24 appeared to have scored the game winner. King deflected a pass from the left wing into the net just after referee Tim Benedetto blew the whistle for a crease violation, disallowing the goal, and forging the 1-1 tie.
Each point is significant to the two teams. In addition to Tuesday’s games, Merrimack, the seventh-place team, will face eighth-place Northeastern with a four-point cushion over the Huskies. It also pulls the Warriors within two points of sixth-place Providence, which will face Lowell on Friday.
The River Hawks gained a point on Northeastern but still remain three points behind for the final playoff spot. With the Beanpot taking place this week and next, Lowell will make up its games in hand on NU by the close of this weekend entering the final home stretch.