February 6, 2014 PRINT Bookmark and Share

As Lowell's Injuries Mount, Opportunities Arise

by Michael King/Staff Writer

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Nightly changes are becoming a regular occurrence on Norm Bazin’s line chart. The Massachusetts-Lowell coach’s decision making isn’t dictated by inconsistency or poor play on the ice. Rather, injuries to multiple key players have limited Bazin’s options. There are increasingly fewer decisions for the coach to make each game.

In last weekend’s series sweep of Merrimack, the River Hawks dressed 17 skaters in each game, asking 11 forwards to find success with one less to share the burden.

Saturday, the River Hawks suffered another injury. Freshman Joe Gambardella left the game early in the second period and did not return. His status is uncertain, according to Bazin.

This adds to the current injury list of Scott Wilson, Ryan McGrath, Nick Gordon, Zack Kamrass, Jake Suter and Daniel Furlong. Though depth is now a paramount concern, the injuries to Wilson and McGrath are most concerning, given the pair’s ability to drive the River Hawk offense. Wilson was a key contributor to last year’s Frozen Four run. He injured his wrist Jan. 24 at Providence and a quick return is not expected.

McGrath injured his ankle in the same game and his 14 points (8-6—14) are not easily replaced. The team’s Hockey East regular season and tournament championships in 2012-13 were largely achieved by an ability to overwhelm teams with depth at every position.

Bazin indicated after Saturday’s 4-0 win at Merrimack that he was unsure if any of the injured players would return to the lineup for next weekend’s games at Boston University and Massachusetts.

However, the opportunity created by these injuries has not gone unappreciated. Several freshmen, including Chris Maniccia and Evan Campbell, have shifted lines, positions and status as healthy scratches throughout the season.

“I think the [opportunity] has benefited some of the younger guys, because they’re in positions that they otherwise wouldn’t be in,” Bazin said, assessing the contributions of his younger players. “It’s been eye-opening for some because it's ice time they haven’t received all year.”

Review of Maniccia’s early-season status is representative of freshmen throughout Hockey East: a combination of relegation to the bench and playing out of position.

Preparation becomes critical, as the differences between the Central Canada Hockey League, where Maniccia competed before joining the River Hawks, and the college game become apparent.

“You just have to know going into the game that you’re short bodies and you have to be mentally prepared to perform whatever role coach puts you in to the best of your ability,” he said.

Maniccia scored late in the second period Saturday night to give the River Hawks a three-goal advantage. The freshman redirected a shot from defenseman Dylan Zink past Merrimack goalie Sam Marotta. Zink, another freshman forced into significant minutes on the blue line, earned his first career point on the play.

“I saw [Zink] look at my stick, so I knew he was going to make a slap pass,” Maniccia recalled. “Then, I just redirected it to the net.”

Capitalizing on scoring chances created by teammates against a powerful, defensive team is a strong response to the constant reevaluation coaches perform on young players.

Yet, the place of a freshman on a seasoned, championship-caliber squad can always be fleeting. Despite scoring his fifth goal of the season and demonstrating aplomb in the faceoff circle for the second consecutive night, Bazin called Maniccia’s number to serve a bench minor early in the third period.

Like most coaches, Bazin places full reliance on his upperclassmen to kill penalties – especially in tight game situations. Regardless, the freshman did not interpret the decision as an indictment of his ability.

“It was just an unlucky break for us, so I served the [two minutes],” Maniccia said simply.

Though the bench minor decision suggests limited confidence in Maniccia by his coach, recent trends in ice time and line combinations reflect a different conclusion. In the team’s first 14 games, Maniccia played center once. The next 13, the forward centered his linemates nearly half the time.

When asked to play the center position, on-ice responsibilities increase to include faceoffs and expanded three-zone accountability. However, Maniccia doesn’t attribute a significant difference in mental approach between center and the wing – whether left or right.

“Either way, you have to be on your toes being at center or on the wing and be ready to jump to the puck,” he said.

It helps that success in the circle is now commonplace for the Ontario native. He won 10 of 12 opportunities in Friday’s 4-2 win at the Tsongas Center and seven of 12 the following evening. And when Lowell begins a restart of play with the puck, it greatly facilitates its possession-based style. This only makes every shift easier for a freshman center.

The River Hawks, now tied with Northeastern for second place, face a difficult series with leader Boston College in three weeks and a challenging pair of games at Vermont to close the year.

It’s obvious to Bazin that this rash of injuries must be overcome to win another Hockey East title. This time, it must be through reliance on the inexperienced. It’s unclear who will return before the playoffs and more injuries are certainly possible.

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