January 11, 2014

Pouring rain forces Northeastern, UML to play it simple

By Andrew Merritt

Joseph Pendenza (Wilmington, Mass.) was one of six River Hawks that put four-plus shots on Clay Witt, but the NU netminder stopped 47 shots in the Huskies' 4-1 win at Fenway Saturday. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

BOSTON – Traditionally, a hockey team only has one opponent in a game.

Saturday afternoon at Fenway Park, Northeastern and UMass-Lowell had to contend not only with each other, but with some challenging conditions on a warm and rainy day at the old ballpark.

Ultimately, Northeastern did a better job dealing with the extra foe, playing a simplified, north-south game that coach Jim Madigan (Milton, Mass.) said was the preaching of the coaching staff before the Huskies' 4-1 win over the River Hawks.

"We wanted to play a simple game, the theme was to play a directional game, short passes, defend the puck carrier," said Madigan, whose Huskies improved to 13-6-3 overall and 6-4-1 in Hockey East – good for a tie with Providence for second place.

UMass-Lowell, meanwhile, struggled as its flowing offensive game was stalled out by the standing water. Late in the third period, with his team down 3-1, high scoring Derek Arnold (Foxborough, Mass.) had an open look at a wrist shot, but the puck slowed up in a puddle as he looked for a hole past Northeastern goaltender Clay Witt.

Arnold's stick snapped forward, but the puck stayed in place. Such was much of the afternoon for the River Hawks.

"It was a wonderful experience, and Fenway's a very historic park, so it was a unique experience," said UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin.

But, "I wish it had been a non-conference game."

It was also a showcase of two teams seemingly headed in opposite directions. While the River Hawks are the defending Hockey East champions, fresh off the program's first-ever run to the Frozen Four, this season they've struggled to replicate last year's excellence.

Though they overcame a slow start with a six-game win streak in November, the River Hawks are 3-2-1 over their last six games. They're still in good position heading into the second half of the season, but a repeat of last year's magic will take some doing.

Meanwhile, Northeastern is rising at a rate that hasn't been seen in some time on St. Botolph Street. They've won three straight, including a huge victory in overtime over Providence last weekend, and right now are in position to host a playoff series for the first time since 2009.

The timing of Northeastern's run is also worth noting because in less than a month, it'll be playing in the Beanpot, a tournament it hasn't won since 1988.

But that's getting way ahead of things, Madigan said.

"We haven't turned the corner yet. We're plugging away each and every game, that's been our approach," he said. "We've had some wins. We've been down the last couple years, we know how tough this league is, and we're truly just focused on the University of Vermont next Friday."

That one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach served the Huskies well on Saturday, too – especially on the uneven footing created by the rains at Fenway.

For Witt, who made a whopping 47 saves in the game, it was a slightly different game plan, though as a goaltender he actually had an advantage in the slurry.

"Our goaltending coach and I, we mapped out a plan of what we wanted to do," Witt said. "It was actually pretty easy to slide around because of the water."

The 48-shot onslaught from UMass-Lowell didn't catch the Huskies by surprise, either.

"Under normal conditions they throw pucks at the net," said senior Braden Pimm, who had two goals in the game. "And with these conditions, you throw the puck at the net even more."

Pimm's first goal was a perfect example of how to overcome the sloppy ice. He took a breakaway into the Lowell zone, but before standing water could rob him of the puck like it did Arnold later in the game, he fired a wrister past Doug Carr (27 saves) for a 1-0 Northeastern lead.

Less than two minutes after Pimm's goal, freshman Matt Benning scored on the power play, giving the Huskies the eventual game-winner. Josh Manson added a shorthanded goal before UMass-Lowell could catch its breath with a Zack Kamrass goal late in the second.

The River Hawks still had the third period to put together a comeback, but with bad conditions and a white-hot performance from Witt in net, those chances melted away on a balmy night at Fenway Park.

Twitter: @A_Merritt
Email: amerritt@hockeyjournal.com