Bazin Building Slowly in Lowell
by Scott McLaughlin/
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. After UMass-Lowell suffered through its worst season in program history a year ago, Norm Bazin was brought in this summer to lead his alma mater's revitalization. A month into his first season, the River Hawks stand at 2-3-0 and have shown signs of the gradual turnaround — this is by no means an easy fix — Lowell fans are hoping for.
The River Hawks came flying out of the gate with a weekend sweep at Minnesota State, a team that blew their doors off in a two-game series in Lowell last season. Junior forward and team captain Riley Wetmore said that fast start was crucial for the team's mindset after tasting victory so infrequently last season, when they finished 5-25-4.
"It was huge, just to build our confidence level," Wetmore said. "We have a lot of freshmen again this year, and it helped build their confidence. We had a tough season last year, so it was big to start off on the right foot this year."
Lowell took a step back three nights later, though, when it suffered a 3-2 overtime loss to Connecticut in an awkwardly scheduled Tuesday night game at a neutral rink in Nashua, N.H. No one in the Lowell dressing room used the timing of the game or the venue as an excuse, though.
Instead the River Hawks turned their attention to the start of their Hockey East season, which happened to be a home-and-home against one of the best teams in the country in Boston College. For a team that features 10 freshmen and 10 sophomores on its 28-man roster, Lowell couldn't have asked for a tougher challenge early in the season.
As many expected, the Eagles swept the River Hawks this weekend. But the River Hawks looked far from overmatched. In fact, they looked like the better team altogether on Friday night in Lowell despite suffering a 4-2 loss that included an empty-netter.
They outworked BC for the vast majority of the game and consistently won one-on-one battles and races for loose pucks. Lowell wound up outshooting the Eagles in all three periods and nearly doubled them up for the game, 39-20.
Bazin said he has made getting pucks to the net as much as possible a point of emphasis since taking over. The River Hawks have clearly listened to him, as they have now registered at least 35 shots in all five of their games and have outshot their opponents each time, including by a 40-24 margin against BC again on Saturday.
"We want to produce more offense, and we want to get after teams," Bazin said. "That's not gonna change. We're gonna be aggressive."
Two things do need to change, though. The River Hawks need to do a better job converting on some of those chances, and they need to do a better job getting on defense when they don't convert. No doubt they ran into a good goalie this weekend in Parker Milner, but the River Hawks had plenty of chances around the crease that they just couldn't bury.
"Quite honestly, it's not that complicated," Bazin said. "I credit their team for having decent goaltending and good net-front sticks, but we just need to find a better level of urgency around the net-front.
"I wouldn't attribute that to experience," he added. "I would attribute that to learning to provide that second and third effort that's needed around the net-front to convert. I think there are good goalies around Hockey East, and we're going to face a great deal of them, so we need to figure out a way to win those battles."
That second area Lowell needs to work on — getting back on defense — was exposed several times in Saturday's 6-3 loss to BC. Freshman Brian Robbins, who was pulled after allowing four goals on 13 shots, didn't look good in net by any means, but he didn't have a whole lot of help. Two goals came from Eagles who were left open within 15 feet of the net and another came from Johnny Gaudreau when he beat a defender one-on-one.
Although goaltending is a question mark for the River Hawks — Doug Carr has a .909 save percentage in two games, while Brian Robbins and Marc Boulanger are both under .860 — Bazin said he is more concerned about the play in front of the crease.
"I won't go there," Bazin said when asked about the goaltending situation, "simply because tonight, the first three or four goals, we couldn't have left that guy out more in the cold. He was left out to dry. I took him out of the net simply because I felt bad for the kid.
"I thought it was team defense that was lacking. The defense was hurt because our forwards weren't working very hard. Our back-side pressure was non-existent, especially the first 30 minutes or so. I think we win as a team and we lose as a team, and tonight was a real good effort as far as losing as a team. It was from the forwards on out."
So, much to the surprise of no one, the River Hawks still have a lot of learning to do after the first month of the Norm Bazin era. But they've also learned a lot about themselves. Wetmore said Bazin's up-tempo is "a lot more fun" to play and gives guys more freedom offensively, while junior defenseman Malcolm Lyles (a transfer from BC) said the team has "a lot of leaders" despite being so young.
Bazin said he likes his team's attitude and that now it just needs to find a way to play more consistently, starting in the defensive end.
"I learned we've got a lot of things to work on," Bazin said of the first month. "We've had some good games, and we've had some mediocre games. We started out real strong, then we had a hiccup 48 hours later. This weekend really was playing a very strong team that's better than us at the moment. That's where it's at.
"The guys are trying hard. Their work ethic has been there since Day 1. The enthusiasm has been very strong in practice and in games. Now we've just gotta have more consistency. That's gonna be the key for the next month."