If the 2011-12 season for the Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks — the first for coach Norm Bazin — was a banner year as many considered, there needs to be a new term to describe the 2012-13 campaign.
After making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996 two seasons ago, last season was a dream for many Lowell fans. The River Hawks captured both the regular season and postseason Hockey East titles for the first time in program history and advanced to the Frozen Four, also a first for Lowell.
But if there is any sign that this could be considered the standard that future teams will be judged against, one only has to think back to Lowell’s 3-2 overtime loss to Yale in the Frozen Four. For it was that loss that many considered a disappointment, given how hot the River Hawks were entering the four-team affair in Pittsburgh.
Many believed it was Lowell’s tournament to lose once four clubs that had never captured a national title advanced past the regionals.
Alas, a title wasn’t in the cards last April and, though the team has long put that run in the rearview mirror, it’s no surprise that Lowell was the consensus preseason No. 1 team nationally.
Those expectations, like most of what has happened on the revitalized Lowell campus over the last two years, are new for Lowell. The team lost four players from last year’s team, two of whom (captain and forward Riley Wetmore and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, who signed early with Buffalo) would be considered blue chips and thus holes that must be filled.
“I don’t know we can replace those guys,” Bazin said of Wetmore and Ruhwedel. “Those are terrific players with maturity and experience they gained along the way. We just have to let some people mature.
“It’s going to be a different chemistry and group that we’ll let evolve.”
The core nucleus of last year’s team returns. Offensively, it once again is likely that you won’t see any River Hawks players at the top of the nation in scoring but rather four balanced lines.
Players like Joseph Pendenza, Scott Wilson and Derek Arnold enter the season as well-known names, but, as happened so often a year ago, anyone on this team could easily step up on any given night.
Defensively, there will be a need to replace Ruhwedel’s presence, particularly on the power play. Look for Joe Houk and Christian Folin, both of whom proved to have laser shots, to be the critical offense components to the blue line.
And, of course, in goal there once again will be two netminders that have led different teams to the NCAA tournament. While Doug Carr was the standout two seasons ago, Connor Hellebuyck posted some of the best goaltending numbers of all time as a rookie a year ago and will be on the preseason list for major awards.
The question, then, is whether the River Hawks can succeed once again, this year as the heavy favorite rather than the sometimes-overlooked underdog.
According to Bazin, whether chasing or being chased doesn’t matter too much.
“Really [being a favorite] doesn’t change anything for us,” Bazin said. “We can only control what we can control and those are predictions. I don’t put a lot of stock into them nor do I lose a lot of mental energy over them.
“The kids are reminded daily that it is a process for us. We just have to go through the process with a new group and that’s what we’re focusing on now.”
About the River Hawks
2012-13 overall record: 28-11-2
2012-13 Hockey East record: 16-9-2 (first)
2013-14 predicted finish (coaches’ poll): Tie-first
Key losses: F Riley Wetmore, D Chad Ruhwedel
Players to watch: F Scott Wilson, F Joseph Pendenza, F Derek Arnold, D Joe Houk, D Christian Folin, G Connor Hellebuyck
Impact rookie: Forward Even Campbell arrives in Lowell with highly touted offensive skills and a 6-foot-4 frame that made him attractive at this summer’s NHL draft, where Edmonton selected him in the fifth round.
Why the River Hawks will finish higher than predicted: On paper, Lowell should repeat as Hockey East champions given that the club returns most of its scoring as well as a goaltender who posted a remarkable statistical season. If the River Hawks can score goals on a regular basis, this could be one dominant team.
Why the River Hawks will finish lower than predicted: As a team that hasn’t had a lot of experience with success, it’s so easy to get caught up in expectations. We saw it in last year’s Frozen Four, where the River Hawks were a heavy favorite against Yale only to be stifled by the Bulldogs. If more teams can figure out how to stop the River Hawks’ transition game, it could be difficult to live up to expectations.