March 20, 2009 PRINT Bookmark and Share

An Extra-Special Affair for RiverHawks

by Joseph Edwards/CHN Writer

It'll be a special night for Massachusetts-Lowell on Friday night, and it will be their special teams that got them there.

No perennial postseason juggernauts — the Riverhawks hadn't made it past the first round since 2002 — Lowell has ratcheted up its play in the recent weeks, and it's nowhere more apparent than its special teams. For instance, penalty kill has gone 56-for-59, a 94.9 percent clip, in that span. And the man-advantage squad is no slouch either, going 9-for-21 over their last four games. Those numbers helped the team to its first playoff sweep since 1997 — a 4-3 OT win and a 4-2 decision at Vermont's Gutterson Fieldhouse, and earned a matchup with Northeastern on Friday night at the TD Banknorth Garden in the semifinals.

"The underbelly of our confidence as a team is that we think we can score power play goals," head coach Blaise MacDonald said. "If we play aggressively and happen to take a penalty our penalty killing has been extraordinary. The complexion of your game is very confident because of the collective effort and your special teams.”

The fact that the penalty kill (87.9%) is tops in Hockey East, and the power play (19.9%) second (with both being in the top-10 nationally) have provided the team with a lot of confidence in the locker room. Eight players on the team have hit the 20-point mark, second in the league to high-octane BU, which has 11. While the offense has been chugging along, the defensive corps has been pulling its weight as well, behind only the Terriers and Huskies in team defense.

The blueline has been a big source of offense. too, Sophomore Maury Edwards leads the way; his 14 power play points lead the team, and his 28 points on the season are second among Hockey East defenders. Edwards isn't the only back-line backbone for Lowell, as Jeremy Denner and Nick Schaus also rank amongst the top-10 scoring defensemen.

“Our MO has been 'collective production'," MacDonald said. "Whether it's defensemen, fourth-line guys, first-line guys, power play, non-power play, shorthanded goals. We’ve relied on that quality of depth that we have to produce in a lot of areas. We can play with a lead, we can play without a lead, and have success"

Other teams have taken note as well, including their upcoming foes.

"I think a lot of their team is driven from their D," Northeastern coach Greg Cronin said. "I think they’ve got really good defensemen – they all move the puck well, they all skate well, they’re physical every time they play."

As any hockey fan can tell you, a strong defense will have a big effect on the the offense, as well.

"[Their strong play has] allowed us to take a little pressure off our forwards and give them more space," MacDonald said. "[The CPR line of Scott Campell, Mark Roebothan, and Mike Potacco] has played really well. I think they’re using their experience, grit and determination. I don’t think we’ll score many highlight goals. But our goals will be in battle areas and zones, scoring those types of dirty goals."

He'll need plenty of those dirty goals when his team faces Hockey East Coach of the Year, Cronin, and Player of the Year, goalie Brad Thiessen. They helped Huskies hold onto the league's top spot before being unseated by BU on the final day of the regular season. It's a team that Lowell is familiar with — it swept the RiverHawks during the season — and one in which MacDonald likes what he sees.

"They're a team that we aspire to be," Macdonald said. "Special teams certainly is very big this time of year, and I think we've done a good job with them all season. To beat a team at this time of year in a venue like the Boston Garden, you need to play your best game. We can really empty the tanks and give it out best shot."

It will be the first time that any player on either squad has gone past the first round and for the RiverHawks to continue on, they'll have to make sure their special teams continue to be just that.

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