Team of the Week: Massachusetts-Lowell
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
Earlier this year, Massachusetts-Lowell coach Norm Bazin found his team in an interesting position. After a 4-6-1 start in October and November, the River Hawks were in the bottom portion of the Hockey East standings and even worse shape in the race for the NCAA tournament.
Something clicked in December for the River Hawks, and it's carried the club through the season's stretch run. Currently, UML is one of four teams tied for first place in Hockey East. A weekend sweep of Boston University and Tuesday's night's win at Boston College set UML up for a late push at a regular season title and earned it CHN's Team of the Week.
"You'll see me smile if we're talking about (being in first place) two weeks from now," Bazin said. "There's a lot of hockey to be played. There's two very big weeks left ... I don't know if anyone is any stronger than anyone else."
Last Friday, the River Hawks picked up a convincing 3-0 win at Agganis Arena in Boston before notching another victory, 3-1, over BU at home. As they always have in their nearly two seasons under Bazin, the River Hawks displayed a strong mix of high-end skill, defensive commitment and reliable goaltending. Tuesday night in Chestnut Hill, Mass., the same was true.
"The last couple weeks have had that playoff feel," UML junior Joseph Pendenza said. "You get down to the last few weekends, and all of the games are playoff-like. Teams are fighting to move up in the standings."
When the River Hawks struggled earlier this season, certain names absent from the scoresheet told a portion of the story. Reigning Hockey East Freshman of the Year, Scott Wilson had just one point — a goal — in his first eight games. Since, the winger has picked up 10 goals and 15 assists. In each of UML's last three games, he kicked off the scoring with a tremendous slapshot.
Aside from Wilson, the return of freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck for the last five games helped UML end a brief two-game skid.
Bazin is fond of praising his team's depth at all positions. Junior goaltender Doug Carr was Hockey East Goaltender of the Year a season ago. However, this year hasn't been especially kind to Carr. Hellebuyck, on the other hand, has thrived in his first season of college hockey. In his five games since returning from an injury, he's posted a 1.61 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage.
That depth Bazin frequently hails as his club's best attribute is also apparent in its scoring lines. Eight UML players have at least 15 points on the season and nine have at least five goals. Pendenza, specifically, has enjoyed a breakout season for the River Hawks. The do-it-all center's 30 points on 12 goals and 18 assists lead the club.
"We knew (beating BC) was a big win at the end of the night," Pendenza said. "But we also know we have two big games coming up against Merrimack. We'll let it sink in a little, but we know we have to get back to work. The two games this weekend are just as big as the game tonight."
Having scoring depth is one thing. UML's version extends beyond putting pucks in the net. The team prides itself on defensive responsibility and shot blocking. A pivotal block or strong defensive play is just as likely to elicit a cheer and chorus of tapping sticks from the UML bench as a goal.
"It's our team defense. We're pressuring the puck and taking away time and space," Bazin said.
"We're fully aware (teams) are going to score eventually. It's to avoid the flurries of two or three goals ... especially against an explosive offense like Boston College. I thought the key for us was how we responded after getting scored on."
It's a formula Bazin trusts, and one that has put UML in position to make a run for Hockey East's regular season and tournament championships. Additionally, the River Hawks are currently ninth in the Pairwise, essentially guaranteed a second straight at-large bid to the NCAA tournament should they falter in the Hockey East tournament.
With a home-and-home pair against Merrimack awaiting the River Hawks this weekend, it's more than likely their chances for a regular-season title and home ice will be a bit clearer come Sunday. Despite the signifiance of these games and those they recently won, UML takes cues from its leader — Bazin.
"It's something coach stresses a lot, staying even keeled, and I think it filters down to us," Pendenza said. "No matter the situation ... we have a job to do. It's filtered down from coach, just to keep an even keel. Even after (defeating BC), we were all happy, but we know we have a job to do over the weekend."