LOWELL — The Hockey East race is too tight to resolve in a single game. With crucial games played concurrently in five rinks, UMass-Lowell won the first of its home-and-home series against Merrimack, 4-0, Friday night before 6,717 at Tsongas Center. The teams meet again Sunday at Lawler Arena in North Andover.
No. 12 UMass-Lowell (20-9-2, 14-8-2) remained atop Hockey East, along with Boston College at 30 points, while No. 17 Merrimack (14-13-6, 12-9-3) slipped to sixth with 27 points. In between are third-place University of New Hampshire (29), and Boston University and Providence tied for fifth (28).
“That was a playoff-style hockey game,’’ said Lowell coach Norm Bazin. “There wasn’t a lot of room out there.’’
Adam Chapie and Derek Arnold scored 2 minutes 40 seconds apart for Lowell in the third period to open up a scoreless game. Arnold and Colin Wright finished it off with empty-net goals at 17:21 and 18:33. Connor Hellebuyck made 31 saves to earn his fourth shutout of the season. After losing his debut game, the Lowell freshman has gone 12-0-0.
Merrimack and Lowell had trouble finding open space through two periods, but by the third, the Lowell offense was revved up. The River Hawks jumped on Merrimack in the third, salting goalie Sam Marotta with shots.
Chapie put Lowell on the board, ending the scoreless standoff at 5:50. Chapie finished off a Lowell flurry with finesse, one-timing a shot from the front of the goal.
Jake Suter provided the puck, taking it down the right side of the zone toward the corner before centering a pass to Chapie, who unloaded.
Arnold made it 2-0 at 8:30, staking out a spot in front of the net so he could tip in Ryan McGrath’s shot.
Merrimack outshot Lowell, 31-25, but both teams held tight to a thick-as-mud defense. Bazin said though his team took some time to generate offense, it didn’t change its tactics.
“It was to keep sticking to the game plan,’’ said Bazin. “It went our way with the first one [goal] and things kind of loosened up from there. However, they made you earn the space all night and I thought we did a fairly nice job defensively, also.’’
Chapie said the the River Hawks, who are 16-2-1 in their last 19 games, were determined in the final period.
“Coach came into the locker room,’’ Chapie said, “and said we’re all right, just play Lowell-style hockey, that’s what we’ve been doing for the last 10 games and it’s been working for us. Just be gritty, get to pucks first and work as a team. That’s what we wanted to do and it’s worked out well.’’
Lowell came to the game on a five-game win streak, while Merrimack was 2-2-1. But neither team could infuse any bite into their offense in the first period, though the Warriors had a pair of power-play opportunities and the River Hawks one.
“I thought at the beginning of the game that the team that executed their game the longest was going to end up winning the game,’’ said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy, “much like the last time we played. They played their game longer.’’
When these teams face off, offense is hard to come by. The Warriors won the first meeting Feb. 1, 1-0. “Their goals were just bang-bang plays,’’ Dennehy said. “And we had our chances, too. “Whoever scores first in this series has a good chance to win.’’
The Warriors got the best of the shots, 11-5, in the first, with six on the power play. Merrimack’s Shawn Bates fired a wrist shot from the left boards during Merrimack’s first power-play opportunity at 4:53, but Hellebuyck stood in the way. Bates got another try off the rush, but after Hellebuyck turned that bid away, the Warriors never got set up again.