New Highs for Lowell
River Hawks Claim First Hockey East Regular Season Title
by Scott McLaughlin/Senior Writer
PROVIDENCE, R.I. At this time two years ago, Massachusetts-Lowell was wrapping up the worst season in its Division I history. The River Hawks went 5-25-4 that season, and head coach Blaise MacDonald was let go after the season.
Lowell turned to alumnus Norm Bazin to turn the program around, and to the surprise of just about everyone, he did it in just one year. The River Hawks' 19-win improvement last season was the biggest ever under a first-year head coach. The only thing they didn't do last season was win some hardware, so naturally that became the goal for this season.
They reached that goal on Saturday, when they beat Providence 4-1 to win their first Hockey East regular-season championship.
"I don't think you think about those things when you take over a team and you're trying to restructure things and build a culture of accountability," Bazin said. "It's exciting for the guys. Some of them have suffered quite a bit in terms of having tough seasons. I'm most proud of those guys because they've been through so many hard times that I think it makes it easier to appreciate the good times."
Given their second-place finish last season, and the number of players they had coming back, the River Hawks knew they had the ability to get to this point. A 4-7-1 start to the season raised a lot of questions, though. Most of their top forwards weren't scoring. Their new defensemen were struggling to adjust. Goalie Doug Carr's numbers weren't anywhere close to what they had been a year before, when he was named a Second Team All-Star.
But then Lowell found some momentum heading into winter break. The River Hawks shut out Northeastern and Harvard in their final two games of the first semester, and when they came back from break, they looked like a completely different team. They looked like the team they were supposed to be.
They reeled off seven straight wins to open the second half and ultimately ran their unbeaten streak to 11 games. They hit a bump in the road with a winless weekend against Merrimack and Maine in early February, but then they bounced back with another winning streak, this one seven games.
"Coach just told us to keep working, and we knew that our bounces would come eventually," said junior forward Josh Holmstrom, who had a goal and an assist on Saturday. "I think it's just the work that we've put in day in, day out. You can see it on everyone's faces after a game like tonight. Everyone's exhausted. Everybody left it all out there. I think that's just the way it's been the whole year. We never quit. We never gave up. We knew we had a good group, and we knew we could do something special with it."
Fittingly, bouncing back was a theme again on the final weekend. Providence won Friday's game in Lowell 3-0, meaning the River Hawks would have to go on the road to win the regular-season title.
They didn't play their best game of the season on Saturday, but they excelled on special teams. They went 2-for-6 on their own power plays, and more importantly, their penalty kill was a perfect 10-for-10.
"It took looking deep inside and saying, 'Hey, that's not good enough,'" Bazin said. "We knew we weren't good enough last night. It wasn't an external factor that caused us to lose last night. It was a lack of urgency. We had it tonight. We were better tonight. I thought we won a lot of puck battles."
Another place they excelled was in goal. After having his 13-game winning streak snapped on Friday, Connor Hellebuyck stopped 32 of 33 shots on Saturday. The freshman netminder finishes the regular season with a 14-2-0 record, 1.49 goals against average and .945 save percentage.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, Lowell's turnaround started the same time Hellebuyck emerged as a viable option. He got those two shutouts against Northeastern and Harvard, and then didn't lose again until Friday night. Both of Lowell's losses during that stretch came while Hellebuyck was battling an injury that forced him to miss nearly a month.
"It's been big," Holmstrom said of Hellebuyck's play. "He's very calm back there. He's seeing a lot of pucks and he's not giving up many second chances. He's doing well back there, and I think just our team defense in general has been very good down the stretch. It's making it difficult for opposing teams to score goals."
The River Hawks still have more they want to accomplish this season — starting with advancing to the TD Garden for the Hockey East semifinals, something they couldn't do last year. But for now, they can celebrate a milestone night in the program's history. They turned the program around. They turned the season around. And now, for the first time, they're champions.