Lowell's Slow Start Continues
Bazin Trying to Find Early Answers
by Scott McLaughlin/CHN Writer
LOWELL, Mass. Massachusetts-Lowell was supposed to be one of the top teams in Hockey East this season. The River Hawks returned their No. 1 goalie, six defensemen who saw regular playing, and nine of their top 12 forwards from last year's squad that finished second in the conference and came within one win of a Frozen Four appearance. There was no reason to think they wouldn't be able to match, or at least come very close to matching, last year's achievements.
But now there is plenty of reason to be skeptical. The River Hawks are currently 2-5-1 and sitting in ninth place in the league standings. While the team defense hasn't been quite as good as last year, it certainly hasn't been bad. What has been bad is the offense. The River Hawks returned more goals than any other Hockey East team, yet they currently rank 56th in the country with just 1.62 goals per game. On Friday night, they got shut out by New Hampshire in a 3-0 loss.
Coach Norm Bazin has tried juggling his lines. He has changed up at least two lines in each of the last four games, but nothing has clicked. Guys who worked well together last season — particularly last year's top line of Scott Wilson, Riley Wetmore and Derek Arnold — aren't this season.
"I think you try things," Bazin said. "I've been patient with some lines and I've changed others. You try things. When you're in a rut, you move some things around and you try to create some motivation in some guys. We'll keep trying things."
Wilson, a point-per-game player who was named the league's Rookie of the Year last season, has mustered just one point so far. Wetmore, the team's leading point-scorer last year, has two. Arnold led the team in goals, but only has two markers so far this year. Terrence Wallin tallied 25 points last season, but, like Wilson, is stuck at one this year.
Numbers aside, the River Hawks just haven't been taking over in the offensive zone like they did last year. Last season, they would go hard on the forecheck and pin teams deep in their own zone for entire shifts. This season, there have been a lot more one-and-done offensive possessions and not nearly as much cycling.
"They're gonna have to get desperate," Bazin said. "At some point here, they're gonna have to get desperate in terms of their effort. As long as somebody's getting chances, I'm never upset. As a coach, you can only control the effort. Some of them are sometimes waiting for a loose puck versus creating something. We'll look at some things. I think there's a high level of frustration, no question."
Bazin has also tried changing the team's offensive mindset. Last year, the River Hawks shot from pretty much anywhere and scored a lot of their goals just by going hard to the net. They were still racking up the shots to start this season, registering 38 or more in each of their first four games, but they couldn't get it to translate into goals.
So Bazin tried to get his players to be a little bit more selective and get into better scoring areas before shooting. It resulted in a marginal improvement for a couple games, but then Friday night's shutout came along.
"We're trying to change some things so we're not shooting for the sake of shooting, so we're choosing our chances maybe a little bit more wisely," Bazin said Friday. "However, it didn't work out that way today. Today was unfortunately not getting a whole bunch of chances, and not penetrating. I thought we had a couple opportunities early in the game, early in the second, and those don't go in. I think the guys are fighting it a little bit."
Bazin and Wetmore both acknowledged the rising level of frustration after Friday's loss. Bazin credited his team for staying disciplined and not taking penalties as a result of that frustration. He also said that the only way to overcome that frustration is to keep working hard.
The River Hawks didn't win last year because they were loaded with talent. They won because they worked harder than most of their opponents. Wetmore said they're still working hard in practice, but that it hasn't carried over to games for some reason.
"We have to work hard," Wetmore said. "That's why we were so good last year. We know how hard it is to win in this league. Everyone just needs to start working. We're not possessing the puck at all in the offensive zone right now, and that starts with hard work. We bring that every day in practice. We compete every day in practice. We have to bring that same intensity to games."
Before the season, Bazin and the River Hawks said they weren't putting any stock into preseason polls or expectations. Bazin has consistently downplayed to the media any effect last season might be having on this season. But on Friday, he admitted that the expectations may have gotten to some of his players.
"I haven't really put much thought into that," Bazin said. "However, it has probably affected a few guys. You can talk about some of that affecting guys. I think when things aren't going well, it's a domino effect."
In order to stop the dominos from falling, the River Hawks need to do exactly what Wetmore said — get back to the hard work that made them so successful last year, that earned them high expectations for this season. So far, that has obviously been easier said than done.
"We've got to get our overall game back to the point where we're playing hard, Lowell-style hockey for 60 minutes," Bazin said. "The only thing we can do is keep working on our game and try to come up with that 60-minute effort, and get back to some desperate hockey."