March 15, 2013

Hockey East Journal: The rise of the River Hawks

By Andy Merritt

LOWELL – It’s a small sign, just a little bigger than a license plate, and it’s only meant for a select group of people to see. It’s dented, it’s humble, and if you weren’t looking for it, you’d probably miss it.

Many teams have a spot on a wall, or a rock, or a statue that each player taps with a hand or stick on the way out of the locker room. The Notre Dame football team has the most famous one – the one with the highfalutin slogan, “Play Like a Champion Today.”

The battered red sign that hangs on an eave between the UMass-Lowell locker room and the Tsongas Center ice surface – the one the River Hawk players reach up and touch with their gloved hands as they walk out to start each period – keeps it a lot simpler: “Home Pride.”

The River Hawks have had plenty of it this year. Including Thursday night’s series-opening 4-2 win over Maine, UMass-Lowell has gone 10-5-1 at home this year, which is already one of the best in program history. Of course, they don’t just win at home – UML is 13-5-1 on the road – but regardless of the setting, the River Hawks have been very, very
 good this year. And they’ve already made history: for the first time in the league’s 28-year history, a team other than Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire and Maine won the regular season title, and the River Hawks won eight of their final nine games to become that team.

 “We certainly finished the regular season in style,” coach Norm Bazin said in a teleconference with the coaches of the eight playoff teams. “We are elated to be the regular season champion. It’s something that’s very new for us. We’re excited to be rewarded for our body of work. We do realize that it’s the regular season and it’s over, and we look forward to starting a new season.”

UML needed every minute of that stylish finish, after one of the closest and most dramatic title races in Hockey East history. Going into the final weekend of the season, any one of four teams could have won the league title, and on the final day of the season it was still a tossup between Lowell, Providence and Boston College. The River Hawks beat the Friars 4-1 to finish the regular season on top and set up their quarterfinal series against Maine. When Hockey East coaches, players and observers talk about the league being tough to play in, that anyone can win on any given night, this is the kind of season they point to.

It was anything but easy. UML started the year 4-7-1, and six of those losses were to league opponents.

“It started with a ruthless schedule,” Bazin said. “I thought we played some of the top teams in the league, at a time when they we playing their best hockey. It wasn’t the start we were looking for. We were playing nine freshmen and playing one or two seniors a night. There wasn’t a whole lot of experience out there. Fortunately for us, we ended the first half with a couple of good team defensive efforts and were able to string some wins together.”

“Some?” Yeah, about that. The River Hawks won nine straight, and went unbeaten in 11, from Dec. 8 to Jan. 26. When the streak started, they were in ninth place, 13 points behind first-place BC. When the streak ended, they were in fifth, but only five points behind the Eagles in an increasingly tight race. And it turned out they had one more streak in them: UML went 7-0-0 from Feb. 15 to March 3, and when that seven-game run was over, they were in first.

Bazin, a former UML player who, after Thursday night’s win, is 47-23-3 in his first two years as Lowell’s head coach, is certainly a strong candidate to become the second man ever to win back-to-back Bob Kullen Coach of the Year titles, and the first back-to-back winner since Jack Parker in 2004-05 and 2005-06.  

But he’s still got some work to do. All of last season’s success was great, and the River Hawks were good enough to get into the NCAA Tournament via an at-large bid, but they were knocked out of the Hockey East playoffs in the first round by Providence.

“We haven’t dwelled on that too much,” Bazin said. “Some of the best lessons you learn are from your failures. We probably didn’t bring our A-game to the table every night. I think we have better depth this year. Up front, I think we have four second lines. I can’t tell you who’s going to be our best line every night and I can’t tell you who will be our weakest.”

Up against a tough Maine squad that went 6-3-4 over its final 13 games to get into the playoffs, Lowell struck a big blow with Thursday night’s opener, led by two goals from Scott Wilson. They could punch a ticket to the Garden for the semifinals as early as Friday. If not, Game 3 is Sunday, but regardless of the outcome, UMass-Lowell, which is currently fourth in the PairWise Rankings that predict NCAA Tournament seedings, still has a few chapters left to write this season.

Players of the Week

Scott Wilson, so., UMass-Lowell

Wilson had a goal and an assist in Lowell’s regular season finale against Providence, and in Game 1 of the quarterfinal series against Maine, he scored the tying and go-ahead goal  to spark the River Hawks’ victory.

Hockey East Quarterfinals

(Games are 7 p.m. unless otherwise noted. * - if necessary)

Maine (8) at UMass-Lowell (1), Thursday, Friday, Sunday* (TBA)

Vermont (7) at Boston College (2), Friday, Saturday, Sunday* (4:30)

Merrimack (6) at Boston University (3), Friday (7:30), Saturday, Sunday* (5 p.m.)

New Hampshire (5) at Providence (4), Friday, Saturday (4 p.m.), Sunday* (4:30 p.m.)

Power Rankings

  1. UMass-Lowell (23-10-2, 16-9-2 HEA) – Freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck made 55 saves on 59 Providence shots last weekend, including all but 33 of the Friars’ attempts in Saturday’s title-clinching victory.

  2. Providence (15-12-7, 13-8-6 HEA) – Jon Gillies (South Portland, Maine) picked up the fifth shutout of his freshman season in last Friday’s 3-0 win over UMass-Lowell, which helped the Friars finish in the top 4 in Hockey East.

  3. New Hampshire (18-9-7, 13-8-6 HEA) – There’s only one team in Hockey East that the Wildcats didn’t beat at least once this year: Providence, their first-round opponent.

  4. Boston College (20-10-4, 15-9-3 HEA) – Johnny Gaudreau’s sophomore year hasn’t quite matched his incredible debut, but he ended the regular season portion with a bang, scoring three goals and four assists in the final weekend, and two goals and four assists on the final day – a 7-2 win over Vermont.

  5. Boston University (18-15-2, 15-10-2 HEA) – Coach Jack Parker’s (Somerville, Mass.) retirement announcement dominated the news in New England college hockey, and while he said the timing had nothing to do with inspiring his troops for the quarterfinal series against Merrimack, it does give the Terriers a little extra incentive: finishing his 40th and final season on the right note.

  6. Merrimack (15-15-6, 13-11-3 HEA) – The Warriors, who lost all three games in the season series against BU, hit the quarterfinals against the Terriers with just one win in their last seven games.

  7. Vermont (11-17-6, 8-13-6 HEA) – Freshman Brody Hoffman’s debut season has already earned him a spot in the record books, with some pretty good company: The last UVM goalie to play every regular-season game was Tim Thomas in 1996-97.

  8. Maine (11-18-8, 7-12-8 HEA) – He wasn’t able to stop enough UMass-Lowell shots for the win Thursday, but Martin Ouellette’s 32-save effort marked his fourth straight game with 30-plus saves, and his 11th of the season.

  9. UMass (11-18-3, 8-15-2 HEA) – The Minutemen missed the Hockey East playoffs for the fourth time since joining the league in 1994, and the first time since 2002.

  10. Northeastern (9-21-4, 5-18-4 HEA) – Kevin Roy (17-17—34) became the second freshman to lead Northeastern in scoring in as many years, following Ludwig Karlsson last season.

Andy Merritt can be reached at amerritt@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @a_merritt.