May 12, 2014

Hockey East: Apex is sweet for once-lowly River Hawks

By Andrew Merritt

Backstopped by the impeccable goaltending of Connor Hellebuyck (bottom left), UMass-Lowell won back-to-back Hockey East titles with a 4-0 win over UNH on March 22. (Photo by Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

BOSTON — Derek Arnold saw how bad it can get.

When the Foxboro, Mass., native’s career at UMass-Lowell began, the River Hawks were in dire straits. Just two years earlier, in 2008-09, they had come one goal short of winning the program’s first Hockey East title, and the year after that they had posted a respectable 19-16-4 record. But 11 seniors graduated after 2009-10, including both of the team’s goaltenders, and with that class went all the connections to the program’s resurgence out of the depths of nearly being eliminated altogether in the mid-2000s.

The cupboard was bare, and despite Arnold’s significant abilities, there wasn’t enough to fill it. The River Hawks went 5-25-4 in 2010-11, which turned out to be the last behind the bench for coach Blaise MacDonald (Billerica, Mass.).

Arnold can say four years later that while he didn’t regret coming to Lowell after his disastrous freshman season, it was a hard pill to swallow.

“I came in as a young freshman, a team that didn’t have much fire and lacked a lot of key details that the team has now,” Arnold said. “Our senior class went through some tough times.

“It’s a great school, I’ve met some great people and a lot of friends. It was a tough year, and anytime you go through something like that, you get down on yourself. But to come back for sophomore, junior and now senior year, it’s a pretty humbling experience.”

About those sophomore, junior and senior years: In the past three seasons, UMass-Lowell has risen from the woeful days of 2009-10 to become one of the most dominating teams in the country. And on March 22, it became the first team without the word “Boston” on its sweater to win back-to-back Hockey East titles in more than a decade.

The River Hawks, who had to scrap and scrape to beat Vermont in the quarterfinals a week earlier, barely broke a sweat at TD Garden, dispatching Notre Dame in the league semifinals and New Hampshire in the championship game by 4-0 scores. In the semis, the River Hawks used first-period goals by defenseman Christian Folin and Arnold to cruise to a win, employing their stifling, swarming defense to prevent a Notre Dame team that whipped Boston College in the quarterfinals from ever getting to its feet.

In the final, the plot was essentially the same: Two early goals, a boatload of elite-level defense, and almost no challenge whatsoever from the opposition, UNH, which reached the final after beating Northeastern in the quarterfinals and Providence in the semis.

What was different was the casting of the starring roles. Folin, Arnold, Evan Campbell and Zack Kamrass had the goals in the semifinals against the Fighting Irish. In the final, it was A.J. White, Josh Holmstrom, Joe Gambardella and Jake Suter who took care of the scoring.

With 7:48 to go in the first period, Folin grabbed an attempted UNH clearance and kept the puck in the offensive zone. Joe Pendenza, a senior from Wilmington, Mass., who had an assist on the game-winner against Notre Dame a night earlier, took a shot that UNH goaltender Casey DeSmith (Rochester, N.H.) stopped, but the sophomore coughed up a rebound, and White knocked it home.

Pendenza had two more assists in the game, but the first goal was all the River Hawks ended up needing to raise the Lamoriello Trophy for the second straight year. And the reason for that stood 180 feet behind White as he put the puck in.

Connor Hellebuyck is the keystone in the defense that befuddled and frustrated teams throughout 2013-14. His .941 save percentage is the best in the nation, as is his 1.79 goals-against average. After a freshman season in which Hellebuyck was probably one of the best goaltenders in the country, as a sophomore in 2013-14, he left no doubt whatsoever.

And on the big stage against Notre Dame and UNH, he was at his very best. He made 35 saves against the Irish, and 30 more against the Wildcats, and for his efforts, he was named the Hockey East tournament’s first repeat MVP in its 30-year history.

“When we had our chances, Hellebuyck made saves when he had to,” said UNH coach Dick Umile (Melrose, Mass.).

The addition of Hellebuyck is one of the biggest building blocks in a foundation UMass-Lowell has developed over the three years since Norm Bazin took over as head coach in 2011. A former UMass-Lowell player who had success in the Division 3 ranks at Hamilton, Bazin arguably has been the best young coach in the nation since he came to Lowell. And the program he has built is not one made of superstar scorers. Other than Hellebuyck, there isn’t a well-publicized character in the bunch.

That’s by design.

“We talk about it a lot; we’re a four-line, balanced, even attack,” Arnold said. “Anyone’s capable of scoring that big goal on any given night. The coaches use that analogy to the Boston Red Sox, Jonny Gomes saying that ‘we don’t have a superstar on this team, everyone’s a superstar.’ They had depth, and that’s what we had as well. We used that analogy throughout the season, and that’s something we prided ourselves on, that depth.”

The 2013-14 team was the epitome of that philosophy. The River Hawks didn’t have a single scorer among the top 15 in Hockey East — Pendenza was 18th with 14 goals and 16 assists — and the overall offense was only seventh best in the league. But it didn’t matter, because the defense was the attraction, allowing an astonishing 1.88 goals per game, the nation’s best number. And while the defense locked down almost every opponent it faced, someone — Pendenza, or White, or Arnold, or Folin, or someone else — came up with the goal, the play, the moment that UMass-Lowell needed to succeed.

And there was a lot of success. So much that Bazin, normally a reserved and tactically minded man who graduated from the Bill Belichick school of even-keeled coaching, made an uncharacteristic pronouncement after his second Hockey East crown in as many years.

“We wanted Lowell to become a program that competed for championships, and I think we’ve done that,” Bazin said. “I think this could be the best team I’ve coached in this three-year period.”

Less than a decade ago, UMass-Lowell was on the ropes, nearly the victim of financial realities that almost forced the dissolution of the program. The team came back from that, and got pretty good, before going back to being pretty bad when Arnold, Pendenza and this year’s six other seniors came to town. But in the past three years, Bazin has built the program into more than a contender.

Lowell, once again, is a champion, and on an early spring night after four years of struggle, building and ultimately victory, Derek Arnold got to see just how good it can get.

This article originally appeared in the April edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to access the FREE digital edition.

Twitter: @A_Merritt