No. 2 UMass unable to overcome flat first period Saturday

Minutemen fall to the red-hot River Hawks on the road

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No. 2 UMass unable to overcome flat first period Saturday

(Jon Asgeirsson/Daily Collegian)

(Jon Asgeirsson/Daily Collegian)

(Jon Asgeirsson/Daily Collegian)

(Jon Asgeirsson/Daily Collegian)

By Liam Flaherty, Collegian Staff

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LOWELL — The Massachusetts hockey team was not ready for battle when it took the ice at the Tsongas Center and it showed in a major way during Saturday’s 2-0 shutout loss at the hands of UMass Lowell.

No. 2 UMass showcased a winning performance the night before when it completed the season sweep of Boston University, but during Saturday’s top-20 matchup and a battle for Hockey East first place, the Minutemen (21-6-0, 13-4-0 Hockey East Association) came flat out of the gates and could not keep up with the No. 15 River Hawks (17-8-2, 11-4-2 HEA), who have gone unbeaten in their previous 10 games.

“I don’t know,” coach Greg Carvel said with a perplexed look following UMass’ second shutout loss of the regular season. “Our strength coach has a real thumb on the pulse of our team and I asked him before the game, ‘Do you think they’re ready?’ and he said ‘I don’t know. I can’t tell’. So, that’s not a good sign.”

When Clayton Kirven realized the team needed a boost, Carvel sought to give it to them; but to no avail.

“I tried to get them revved up before the game, but I don’t know,” he said. “This was for first place [in Hockey East], and I know we’re still in first place, but this would have really separated us from the pack.”

Only two points separate the Minutemen and UML in the Hockey East standings following the road loss. With seven league games remaining at the middle of February, the points matter more than ever now.

“We tried to bill this game to our players as a playoff-style game for first place in the league, which it was, and we weren’t ready to play,” Carvel said. “Lowell scored first and we knew it was going to be a low-scoring game. To not be prepared and basically give them an early lead, it’s tough to overcome.”

Chris Schutz and Anthony Baxter scored on Matt Murray (32 saves) in the first. UMass typically shows a lot of resiliency in the deficit, after going down 2-0 early, but that was not the case Saturday in Lowell.

Breaking out of the zone and retaining possession of the puck were the major areas of concern for the Minutemen early on, which is expected against ‘the best team in our league right now,’ Carvel said.

There’s been a major emphasis on creating a net-front presence among Carvel and the coaching staff as of late, and with UML netminder Chris Hernberg between the pipes, UMass was nowhere to be found.

“I give Lowell a ton of credit. They play extremely well defensively and wait for their opportunities offensively,” Carvel said. “They’re heavy and strong around the net and they were better than us in those areas. [Hernberg] looked very comfortable in the net. We didn’t do a very good job of getting him out of his comfort zone. But, credit to Lowell. They’re playing very well and we weren’t up for the challenge.”

Although the Minutemen struggled to possess the puck for a majority of the night, the offense began to find more chances towards the end. It was the bottom-six forwards that to find their rhythm, however.

“It’s not a good sign when, as a coach, I’m more comfortable putting my third and fourth lines on the ice,” Carvel said. “My first two lines were completely unaffected tonight and thats not usually the case. This was playoff-style hockey tonight and our big guns decided not to show up.”

Liam Flaherty can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @_LiamFlaherty.