By Chaz Scoggins
NORTH ANDOVER -- UMass Lowell is on the brink of making some Hockey East history. But the nationally ranked and rampaging River Hawks refuse to focus on anything but the present.
When 10th-ranked UMass Lowell trimmed 17th-ranked Merrimack College 3-1 on Sunday afternoon in front of a sellout crowd of 2,489 at the Volpe Center and a national TV audience for its seventh straight victory over a nationally ranked team, the River Hawks claimed sole possession of first place in Hockey East -- the latest they've ever been on top this late into a season.
And the River Hawks are in full command of their own destiny. If they sweep Providence College in a home-and-home series next weekend, they'll win the title outright and become the first school outside of the so-called Big Four to win it in the league's 29-year history.
All 28 previous crowns have been won by either Boston College, Boston University, Maine or New Hampshire. None of the other six schools in the league has ever finished first.
UML coach Norm Bazin, however, doesn't want his team thinking past Friday's game against Providence at the Tsongas Center.
"Like Coach said, the most important thing is to be playing well going into the playoffs," reiterated junior Josh Holmstrom, who scored UML's first two goals Sunday as the River Hawks grabbed a 3-0 lead. "Today was another step towards that."
UML began the season 4-7-1 in its first dozen games, was in ninth place at the start of December, and in fifth place just two weeks ago in the incredibly crowded Hockey East race that finds the top six teams separated by just five points in the standings. The River Hawks have reeled off a 17-2-1 record since that weak start and risen to the top.
But to Bazin, a Hockey East title would be just a nice byproduct to what he wants his team to accomplish.
"I just want to be playing our best hockey at the end," he said, noting that the River Hawks earned home ice for the first round of the upcoming Hockey East Tournament.
"A couple weeks ago, we earned our way into the tournament," he said. "The next two games we want to play good hockey so we don't limp our way into the playoffs."
The River Hawks (21-9-2, 15-8-2 in Hockey East) lead UNH by one point in the standings. Defending Hockey East and national champion BC and Providence are just two points behind UML, while BU trails by four. If there's a tie for first at the end of the regular season, both BC and UNH have tie-breakers against UML. The River Hawks could finish anywhere from first to fourth. But their destiny is in their own hands.
The last time UML and Merrimack clashed in North Andover, the Warriors won 1-0.
"We wanted to jump on them early, and tonight we did that," Holmstrom said.
The River Hawks thoroughly outskated the Warriors for the first 40 minutes Sunday. Holmstrom deflected a drive from the left boards by defenseman Joe Houk past goaltender Rasumus Tirronen at 6:58 of the first period to give them the lead. During a power play at 11:20, Holmstrom backhanded a feed from Scott Wilson past Tirronen for his 10th goal of the season, ending a string of 35 consecutive penalty kills by the Warriors.
"A strong start went a long way in determining we could play our game from the outset," Bazin said.
While Joseph Pendenza picked up two assists, stretching his scoring streak to eight games and putting him in third in the league scoring race, the River Hawks don't rely on one high-scoring line and one or two snipers for the bulk of their production. Five players have reached double figures in goals this season.
"What has made us successful, especially lately, is that we're able to roll four lines every night," Holmstrom said. "We have good depth, and everybody keeps coming to play."
Freshman defenseman Greg Amlong made it 3-0 at 7:09 of the second period with his first collegiate goal, neatly converting a post-to-post pass from Pendenza.
Merrimack (14-14-6, 12-10-3) spoiled freshman Connor Hellebuyck's bid for his fifth shutout just 22 seconds into the final period when Shawn Bates finished off a 2-on-0 break, cutting UML's lead to 3-1. The Warriors fired 19 shots on Hellebuyck, the league's top goalie and the second-ranked goaltender in the country with a 1.41 average and .947 save percentage, in the third period but could get nothing else past him. Hellebuyck has won 13 straight decisions, a school record for Division I goaltenders.