The River Hawks will face Merrimack again Saturday night at the Tsongas Center. (Matt Dwyer/Connector)
It took 18 minutes and 1 second of overtime to decide who would take the first win of the Hockey East Championship opening round playoff series between UMass Lowell and Merrimack College. In the end it was junior forward Ludvig Larsson and the Warriors that sent the River Hawks back to the locker room in grim spirits.
This is the first postseason since new playoff rules were implemented that UMass Lowell has played in the opening round of the Hockey East tournament, and the loss against Merrimack left the Tsongas Center in a cloud of dread as the Merrimack College band played their celebrating team off of the ice.
“It wasn’t the result we were looking for,” said UMass Lowell head coach Norm Bazin.
After an electric first period that involved dominating play and scoring a goal, the River Hawks slowly became complacent as the game went on. Merrimack had clearly not forgotten the previous week’s 5-0 loss handed to them by UMass Lowell, and evidently the River Hawks had not either.
The tying goal by Merrimack seemed to take them by surprise, as it certainly did for the fans in the audience, and although they had several scoring chances peppered throughout the rest of regulation and the overtime period, they were unable to capitalize.
Larsson, who scored the overtime goal coming off of a huge momentum shift for the Warriors, called himself lucky in that his shot went in. By the looks of how the overtime period was going, with back-and-forth play and scoring chances galore, it seemed as though the Tsongas would have needed to accommodate at least 20 more minutes of hockey.
“I was just trying to shoot it on goal,” said Larsson.
Merrimack College head coach Mark Dennehy said that he thought the game was full of chances for both teams, and that even through the overtime period they brought intensity to the game.
“That was worth the price of admission,” said Dennehy.
He pointed to the equal standing that both Merrimack and UMass Lowell had throughout the game. The game was ever-shifting, never quite favoring one team over the other for too long, especially after Merrimack scored their first goal.
The efforts of the goaltenders in particular was an aspect that Dennehy brought up, saying that both played well.
UMass Lowell junior goaltender Christoffer Hernberg made 39 saves in his 23rd game of the season. He stayed calm and collected when he was rushed, making a few saves on breakaway attempts that were sprinkled throughout the game, because the tight score evidently was not exciting enough.
Dennehy’s goaltender, junior Craig Pantano, had a strong showing. Pantano made 32 saves on 33 shots and largely was the one that stood in the way of the River Hawks scoring more than once.
Wilson opened and closed the scoring for the River Hawks with his seventh goal of the season at 15:52 of the first period. The unassisted goal brought the strong student section in the Tsongas Center roaring to their feet.
Through the overtime period, the crowd was on its feet once more as the game moved back and forth, not settling on one side until Larsson definitively ended it at 10:05 p.m., two hours and 50 minutes after the initial puck drop.
As Bazin is one to say, the opening game of the series was a game of inches. Both Merrimack and UMass Lowell had several close chances that were stonewalled by the two goaltenders. Chances were plenty for either side, and in the end the game was resolved with one shot by Larsson, who just wanted to get a puck on net in front of an entranced home crowd.
“We gave up 40 shots, and that’s not something we do very often at home,” said Bazin.
Speaking on the overtime period, Bazin suggested that tiredness may have played a role in UMass Lowell’s small offensive breakdown.
“The game opened up, there were some tired legs on both teams. We probably had more tired legs than they did,” said Bazin. “Both teams had chances, and unfortunately they had the last one.”
The River Hawks will host the second game of the series against Merrimack on Saturday night at 7 p.m. If a third game is necessary, the puck will drop at the Tsongas Center on Sunday, March 4 at 4 p.m.