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UMass-Lowell 2, Merrimack 2

Lowell finds solace tying Merrimack

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / February 26, 2012
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LOWELL - It wasn’t Friday’s 5-2 loss at Merrimack that upset UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin. In his mind, it was the River Hawks’ lack of effort, puzzling since the regular season only has one week remaining, and his seventh-ranked team has plenty on the line.

So Bazin considered last night’s 2-2 tie at Tsongas Center with Merrimack a much-needed response. In a game the River Hawks never led, they twice came back from one-goal deficits to salvage a point over the weekend as they jockey for position in Hockey East.

“To come back with a good effort tonight was important for us,’’ said Bazin. “We were a step behind on everything [Friday night], and tonight I thought we were back to being proactive. We made it a personal challenge to come back and get back to playing our game, because we feel you can’t turn the switch come playoff time.’’

Lowell (20-10-1, 15-9-1 Hockey East) entered the weekend in second place in the conference race, and left it in third. Merrimack (16-9-7, 12-8-5) had won its last five games when scoring at least two goals, but gave up a late lead in the third period. Neither team created a decent scoring chance in overtime.

“It was playoff hockey, it was a playoff weekend,’’ Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said. “To play a team as good as Lowell as well as we did, that’s the team that we as coaches believed we could be.’’

Three teams fighting for home-ice advantage in the Hockey East playoffs will take their battle to the final day; two will secure it. Lowell (31) is alone in third place, behind Boston College (35) and Boston University (33), and closes with a home-and-home series against Providence. Maine is fourth with 30 points, but has just one game remaining, vs. New Hampshire on Saturday. Merrimack (29) sits fifth, but controls its destiny; the Warriors have a home-and-home with UMass, and own the tiebreaker over Maine.

All four goals came on the power play, including late strikes by each team. Merrimack broke a 1-1 tie with 6:45 left in the third period, 31 seconds after going on the man advantage. Mike Collins scored his second of the game - and ninth of the season - on assists by Kyle Bigos and Connor Toomey.

Lowell went on a power play three minutes later, and needed just 44 seconds to push in the equalizer. Josh Holmstrom took a pass from behind the net and snapped a shot that he thought was going wide. But it deflected off a Merrimack defender and trickled past goalie Joe Cannata, tying the game with 3:00 left.

“Just a fortunate bounce,’’ Holmstrom said. “It was big, especially after not playing well on Friday night. We knew we needed to come back out here with a good team effort, and I think we did that.’’

The Warriors grabbed an early lead for the second straight night. With Lowell’s Scott Wilson serving a two-minute penalty for elbowing, Merrimack made the only shot it mustered on the ensuing power play count. Bigos took a pass from fellow defenseman Brendan Ellis high in the left slot and flicked a shot on net. Collins got just enough of his stick on it to redirect the puck past Doug Carr (28 saves) at 4:45.

Merrimack began the second period on a power play, couldn’t take advantage, then committed penalties 2:01 apart, putting pressure on its penalty killing units to hold the lead for four minutes. It took Lowell nearly the full four, but David Vallorani beat Cannata (26 saves) at 10:26 to tie it. Joseph Pendenza sent the puck along the boards to Matt Ferreira, who was waiting near the left circle. Ferreira centered to Vallorani, who easily bagged his 10th goal of the season.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com.

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