“This is what you get, when you mess with us…”

Ah, Radiohead’s “Karma Police.” A true classic of 90’s rock off of one of the best albums of the 90’s (OK Computer), a song that feels like it’s been around for ages (though it was, in fact, released in 1997, which is the year after the Lowell River Hawks hockey program last made the NCAA Tournament, or so we’ve been most elegantly told). And though the dreamy croon of Thom Yorke’s voice actually tells a story of raging against the corporate machine (or something – who the hell really knows what Thom Yorke is thinking at any given time), the message of “what goes around comes around” is expressed as well as I’ve heard in any song, Justin Timberlake be damned.

“This is what you get / When you mess with us” is probably the most memorable portion of the song, and it describes pretty succinctly this past weekend’s much-anticipated two game set between the University of Massachusetts and its sister program to the east, a battle between teams that once climbed to #9 and #3 respectively in the national polls, two teams with distinctly different expectations coming into the season yet finding themselves in a virtual deadlock coming in. This was a UMass team, trying to avoid a third consecutive year of building something out of nothing (expectations-wise) then watching that something collapse. This was a Lowell team, crumbling under the weight of colossal expectations, pressured to continue to provide Lowell’s one avenue of superiority over its bigger and, in our unbiased opinion, prettier sister.

On Friday night, UMass got sick and tired of watching the little sister come into the Bill and throw its weight around. They dominated the first period, survived a shaky second period, and capitalized on Lowell’s now-characteristic lack of discipline at key points to earn a hard-fought 3-2 win in front of a student section that was low on numbers but high on spirit. Both teams had spectacular chances, both goalies made spectacular saves. It was as evenly-played a game as I’ve seen all year, and probably the most entertaining (yes, more fun than the Maine slugfest or last weekend’s road domination of Northeastern). If you weren’t on the edge of your seat the entire game, you probably don’t have a pulse.

Last night, Matt and myself, as well as his girlfriend and a few of our other friends, made our first road-trip out to Tsongas Arena to see the conclusion of the two-game set. After all, we were understandably curious to see what makes this place such a superior venue for hockey than our beloved Bill, an assertion made by no shortage of obnoxious Facebook kids, passionate forum posters and, yes, even a certain other hockey blog you might have heard of.

***We’re happy to hear that they’re still alive and well over at TIIL, by the way; after the grim “Googling a noose” tweet following their Princeton loss we were especially concerned that two losses to “lowly” “Amherst” would be the straw that broke the camel’s back. We thoroughly enjoyed reading their analysis of our blog aloud before Friday’s game in various Family Guy voices such as Brian Griffin’s screwy clone and Mort Goldman, and we’re taking a lot of their advice to heart – besides, we owe them a shout out after all the free publicity they unwittingly gave us. I will not, however, be going by “E.M. Bitter” anytime soon, though I appreciate the suggestion. And by the way, yes, Weezer’s albums have mostly sucked since Pinkerton, but they’re still great live, since they only play the good stuff. At least they did when I saw them last year in – oddly enough – the Tsongas Arena.

But really, to put this to bed, we understand your rule #10, that you’re “just havin’ some fun.” So are we. We’re glad that we’re not the only ones who think hockey’s the greatest sport in the world, as much as it pains us to admit it, we appreciate your contributions to the hockey blogging world. We apologize for taking things too seriously, and all future trash talk will contain 92% less glaring factual errors.)***

Anyway, here are the many fun things we learned during the Tsongas Experience (TM).

  • Tsongas Arena has the world’s greatest scoreboard over center ice. No, really. It displays text images in a whopping three, count ’em, three wonderful colors: off-orange, something vaguely resembling blue, and something even more vaguely resembling red. Simply remarkable.
  • Additionally, Tsongas has installed lovely ribbon-scoreboards along the sides of the arena. These marvels of visual technology are as close to a real videoboard that they offer here, and following a Lowell goal you get to see – we shit you not – the eyes of the goal-scorer. And let me be the first to tell you, Patrick Cey’s are positively dreamy.
  • We’ve heard our beloved Bill referred to as “dim.” We’ve always found it rather bright in there, especially after experiencing minor-league hockey in venues like Manchester’s Verizon Wireless Arena and the good ol’ Worcester IceCats at the DCU Center Centrum. But now it all makes sense, because relatively speaking, the Mullins Center is the goddamn Batcave, and Tsongas is the Flanders’ house in the very first Simpsons Christmas episode. This seems ironic for an arena without a videoboard, but the Mullins, despite all the silly things about it, manages not to abuse said videoboard too much. Meanwhile, Lowell does all it can to take the focus off the action on the ice and put it on the antics of their mascot and that insufferable woman hostess who would periodically mumble announcements across the PA system, presumably offering “prizes” of Lowell memorabilia to contest winners. Yeah, yeah, we get it, entertain the kids too, etc, but Mullins does a much better job, in our completely biased opinion, of balancing that shit with the game presentation and not just making us feel like we’re at an AHL game. In Tsongas’s defense, we missed the starting lineups and pre-game stuff, so we will have to give that a pass. For now.
  • The arena sound person does a good job playing “every fucking song from Rock Band” between action, which, in all honesty, seemed unnecessary in an arena with a live pep band present. He or she also seems to be a big fan of Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK,” so much so that they just had to hear a few seconds of it in the middle of game action in the 2nd period. I mean, damn, it is catchy, but come on.
  • The PA announcer is equally inept; twice he forgot to announce the one-minute remaining mark (leading to some very entertaining “thirty seconds left in the period” announcements). He also referred to Wellman’s 10-minute misconduct for slashing the goalie after the whistle as “shooting after the whistle,” which understandably made us pretty angry until we found out what really happened after the game. (Not that we agree with the actual call anyway, but we’ll address that momentarily.)
  • Their chuck-a-puck contest, rather than a traditional one (like ours, or the one at most places) or a fun unique one (like Northeastern’s “throw the puck into the dog bowl” game), their hawk mascot goes around the arena with – again, we can’t even make this shit up – a shopping cart that you toss pucks into. Apparently even he would rather be a homeless bum than call this place home.
  • It’s an absolutely wonderful place to watch a game with children, because unlike the UMass students, their student section never uses any profanity. Oh, wait, they do! Y’see, in Lowell, it’s offensive and in poor taste to yell “fuck ’em up” as part of your goal-scoring song, but when the f-bombs and middle fingers are directing toward our fans and players for two whole hours. Practice what you preach, or stop criticizing our behavior. (Frankly, we like the atmosphere, little kids be damned. Go see a Lowell Devils game, kids.)
  • Speaking of little kids, we unfortunately were late to the game and couldn’t join our student section, so we started our own row in the corner adjacent to them. This led to a row of 13-year-old boys who sat behind us and talked shit about UMass as if a) they even went to college and b) their college was winning the game. (This was in between several completely-serious conversations about the Twilight films, I might add.) At one point one of them said “Be respectful, keep it clean – that makes sense,” referring to the back of my t-shirt. So at least Lowell kids know how to read. Fortunately their dad came to get them right after the Minutemen scored the winning goal – crying about the so-called Hockey East conspiracy as one would expect (more on that in a second) – and we got our chance to remind the kids that trash-talk is reserved for those who have actually gone through puberty.
  • The pep band is pretty cool – I would absolutely love to hear our nationally-renowned marching band playing the “you suck” goal-scoring song, because it sounds soooo much better played by a college band. Their rendition of Lowell’s fight song was also pretty awesome. …Wait, what’s that you say? They don’t…have a fight song like “Fight Mass” or, you know, most colleges? (Or if they do, they certainly didn’t bother playing it, and it’s nowhere to be found on their band’s website.) Well at least we know now why our blog title would be deemed “unimaginative” by someone from Lowell.
  • Yep. They have “beer.” But hell if we’re going to spend $5.25 on anything with “Bud” in the name.

Are we calling the Mullins Center perfect? Course not. We lack a pep band (not necessarily the team or arena’s fault, of course), there are stupid dancing games between periods, the recording of “Fight Mass” used to skip (thankfully they appear to have fixed that), and it lacks the closeness of a smaller arena like, well, the rest of the arenas in Hockey East. And, yes, a scoreboard over center ice would be pretty sweet, provided it didn’t look like it was borrowed from 1974. But between our much more coherent student section and vastly superior mascot, not to mention our arena’s treating its inhabitants more like college hockey fans and less like a glorified AHL team (right down to the goddamned blimp!), we gotta say – we’re feeling pretty good about the Bill right now.

On the plus side from the River Hawk perspective, the Lowell student section was pretty into the game, intersession and all. Likewise, our own student section was disappointingly tame. I wasn’t over there but I’d imagine we got an Agganis-esque “only our kids are allowed to swear” ultimatum. Plus, it’s obnoxious for our “Let’s go UMass” chant to be followed by “…Lowell!” as if to simultaneously a) destroy any notion that their students actually do resent the UMass name as they so claim, and b) remind us that they are not the flagship of our university system. The university itself may insist that we be “UMass Amherst” to siphon the positive connotations associated with the “best college town in America” and the name-value of Amherst College. We know that “UMass” by itself means only one thing.

Alright, alright, so all the prerequisite “fun-at-Lowell’s-expense” smack talk that follows a two-game sweep is out of the way. After all, we didn’t want to disappoint anyone by going too easy on them. It’s time to actually talk hockey. As I said, we were late, and so completely missed the disallowed Lowell goal at the start of the game, though we later read online that even the immortal Bob Ellis admitted to overreacting after a Lowell player was clearly in the crease for the goal. Still, Lowell came out and played balls-to-the-wall hockey, performing like a team with its season on the line, at home. UMass’s first period wasn’t quite as one-sided as the shots total would indicate, but it was clear they were doing all they could just to keep up with Lowell’s desperation and intensity. Dainton played yet another brilliant game in net, and, like Hamilton on Friday night, lucked out on a couple occasions in the first period when Lowell had him beat. The much-vaunted Lowell defense was at its finest, blocking shots left and right and making life really difficult for the Minutemen power-play. Mark Concannon (Coco!!!) finally struck for his first goal of the season, but unlike the first period Friday where the 1-0 lead felt like it should have been much greater, we were counting our blessings.

Then the second period reared its ugly head, in which the following things happened:

  1. Lowell seemingly decided, as a team, to come at James Marcou and take him out however possible. This began with Maury Edwards delivering a vicious slash to the face, which I’ll admit I didn’t see the beginning of but which drew a “Jimmy’s done” from a cringing Matt next to me. Edwards went to the box for a 5-minute “high-sticking” major, as the Lowell faithful lamented the Hockey East officials’ perpetual hatred for their beloved program.
  2. This vast conspiracy was further proven by UMass’s Casey Wellman being whistled for a two-minute minor and ten-minute misconduct for “shooting after the whistle” when he crossed the blue line, went to fire a shot, and had the whistle blow in mid-shot. Again, this was later officially listed as “slashing the goalie after the whistle,” an infraction which pretty clearly never transpired either. But whatever. Between the Hawks opening Marcou head-hunting season, Steve Silva style (because we all saw how well that worked out for Northeastern), and the mysterious banishment of Wellman to the bench for a sixth of the game, the refs were clearly trying to help UMass win by any means necessary, even if it means imposing Bill Simmons’s Ewing Theory on the Minutemen mid-game.

Between three additional penalties on UMass in the period, Jimmy playing hurt (he later left the ice for stitches), and Lowell now truly feeling the pressure, the River Hawks took complete control of the period, though again, this is all somehow in spite of a conspiracy against them. UMass’s defense, to their credit, continued to play tough, even as the offense began playing like the joke of a Minutemen team that showed up in those blowouts against BU and UNH, which is to say, about as well as a drunk Southwest girl trying to fly a passenger jet. And when the Minutemen finally did get a couple opportunities, Carton Hutton was up to the challenge, including a ridiculous lunging save from his back on a late rebound. Ultimately, it was Patrick Cey with 8 minutes to go in the period who knotted the game up, and by that point, it was basically inevitable. Still, the Minutemen were able to slink away in a 1-1 tie, setting up the biggest period of the season for either team thus far.

Four seconds into period 3, Michael Budd set off a string of Lowell penalties with a seemingly harmless hooking infraction. Here, dear readers, is where the River Hawks fell into the rut that has plagued them for a good while now: lack of discipline where it counts. This is an all-too-familiar story for the Minutemen, as you’ll remember the way UMass let their frustrations get the best of them in late-game meltdowns against BC and Bentley. Here, it was Lowell, at the worst possible time, who, instead of continuing their solid and, really, at-times dominant play of the earlier periods, got fed up with their efforts being unrewarded, and took out their frustrations with dumb penalties and stupid mistakes. Even when Jimmy got absolutely leveled from behind on an open-ice tackle by Scott Campbell, resulting – naturally – in matching penalties on embellishment (but hey, you know, conspiracy against Lowell and such), the overall penalty time did indeed favorite Massachusetts down the stretch. Lowell, to their credit, revved up their penalty-kill game, doing the thing they do best – defense – all the while looking for the opportunity to get their 2nd-period momentum back.

The River Hawks were playing well enough to win without resorting to goon hockey and going after Jimmy. Alas, after failing to capitalize on their chances throughout the first two periods, not to mention ten whole minutes in the critical second period where UMass was without its second-best player and a sizable two-way presence in Wellman, and all the dubious calls of the second period, the third period brought UMass and its overpowering power play too many sterling opportunities, and say what you will about the calls, but neither of those last two penalties looked “ticky-tack” the way this game had been called. Add that to Lowell’s recent track record of late-game lack of discipline, and you have a team that was begging to give this game away, and that’s what they did, after Matty Irwin stuffed home a long-overdue-for-him 5×3 goal with just over a minute to go, with Jimmy getting an assist in a turn of poetic justice. Lowell gave the final minute a valiant try, much to the dismay of our already-overworked hearts, but when we opened our eyes, the horn had sounded and our “cute” aspirations of a UMass sweep and the Alumni Cup – and the tiebreaker it entails – became reality. Huzzah.

Now, let’s get things straight here: from a purely hockey perspective, Lowell deserved to win Saturday. But that wasn’t enough, they had to go after Jimmy, and that’s where the karma police came calling. Lowell assumed it would get the calls, assumed there was no way they could lose a season series to UMass given the recent history, and played a reckless third period, and the karma police struck again. The end result: UMass is sitting in 3rd place and just a couple points out of first; Lowell is swimming in the pool of mediocrity on the wrong side of the home-ice line.

All the trash-talk about the arena and students and the school itself aside, we here at Fight Mass will freely admit that, for the second period of Friday’s game and the entirety of Saturday’s duel, we were absolutely terrified of the River Hawks – dare I say, even respectful (for the first and probably only time ever, we’ve chosen not to refer to either Lowell or the River Hawks by any of our colorful array of nicknames). Entertainment value be damned, I do NOT want to see these guys in March, regardless of the venue, because if we do, it will involve a disciplinary turnaround on their part. And we shudder to think of this team pulling together and outperforming their talent level. Not that we’re taking back what we said earlier this year about UMass being underrated and Lowell overrated – I think the results speak for themselves so far – but we never explicitly said Lowell was a bad team, either.

Just to butter up the karma police, though, I will say it again – Patrick Cey’s eyes? Daaa-yumn.


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