Lowell Back On Track
by Scott McLaughlin/Senior Writer
LOWELL, Mass. On Dec. 1, Massachusetts-Lowell suffered its second 5-2 loss to New Hampshire in as many nights and dropped to 4-7-1 on the season. One year after reaching the national quarterfinals, the River Hawks found themselves in ninth place in Hockey East and nowhere close to the national tournament discussion.
Since then, the River Hawks have won eight straight games and completely turned their season around. On Thursday night, they beat Providence 2-1 to move into a tie for fifth place in Hockey East and pull within three points of the Friars for the fourth and final home ice spot. More importantly, they've moved up to 12th in the Pairwise, somewhere it seemed they had no chance of getting to a month and a half ago.
"I think winning, for us, is a process," said Lowell coach Norm Bazin. "It's possible earlier in the year, with our tough schedule, we weren't quite ready for that. I think practicing with consistency and intensity is a process also."
The River Hawks' turnaround starts the same place everything starts with a Bazin-coached team — defense. Early in the season, the River Hawks were struggling to do some of the things that made them so successful last year, such as blocking shots and clearing out the front of the net. The result was that Lowell ranked in the bottom half of the conference in team defense.
That changed after those two losses to UNH, though. The River Hawks shut out their next two opponents — Northeastern and Harvard — and haven't allowed more than three goals in a game since. That run has lowered their goals against average to 2.30, good for second in Hockey East. They've also killed 34 straight penalties, moving them up to second in the league there as well.
"It's just the little details," said captain Riley Wetmore. "The forwards getting back to help out, the D talking, the goalie and D exchanges behind the net. Just the little things. We weren't really playing as a team and we were kind of doing stuff individually. Now we're playing as a team."
A huge part of the defensive improvements has been Lowell's goaltending. After Doug Carr (a second-team all-star last season) struggled in that UNH series, freshman Connor Hellebuyck was given both games the next weekend — both to give Carr a breather and to give Hellebuyck a chance to prove himself.
Hellebuyck made the most of it, as he stopped all 55 shots he faced against Northeastern and Harvard. Coming out of break, Bazin decided to rotate Carr and Hellebuyck. Hellebuyck has continued to prove that he deserves at least that much playing time, as he is now 6-0-0 with a .969 save percentage in his last six starts.
"It's been great. He deserves it," Wetmore said of Hellebuyck. "He's the last one off the ice every day. He's out there with the coaches working before practice, after practice. That work pays off, as you can tell."
The improvements haven't just been on defense, though. After starting the season with lots of shots but few goals, then struggling to even get the shots, the River Hawks finally started to find the back of the net. They scored more than three goals just once in their first 12 games, but they've done it four times during their current eight-game winning streak.
While a lot of forwards have improved, the most notable turnaround has come from Scott Wilson. After recording 38 points as a freshman and earning Hockey East rookie of the year honors, Wilson mustered just one point in his first eight games this season. Since then, he's tallied 17 points in 12 games. He didn't find the scoresheet on Thursday, but he did land several big hits that forced bad passes and turnovers.
"He's just playing simple," Wetmore said of Wilson. "He's playing the body. He's playing just simple hockey. He's getting the puck in deep and not trying to do too much with the puck. He's one of the top skill guys in the league, but if he's trying to do too much on his own, it gets tough on him. When he's playing as a team player, he's unbelievable, as you can see from the last couple weeks."
With the River Hawks doing a better job clearing their own zone, the defensemen have been able to get more involved on offense as well. Lowell got just nine points from its defensemen in the first 13 games, but they've registered 25 points over the last seven, including four in Thursday's win. Chad Ruhwedel and freshman Christian Folin have led the way during that stretch with eight and seven points, respectively. Ruhwedel scored the game-winning goal on Thursday, while Folin assisted on Lowell's first goal.
The River Hawks will look to tie a program record by winning their ninth straight game on Saturday. That game will be the toughest since the streak started, though — a road game at Boston University.