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College Hockey:
Massachusetts-Lowell serves notice that it’s taking multiple threats to NCAA tournament

140322 19240827 Massachusetts Lowell serves notice that its taking multiple threats to NCAA tournament

Massachusetts-Lowell won its second straight Hockey East tournament title by beating New Hampshire (photo: Melissa Wade).

BOSTON — All the talk during the last month has been about a certain line combination wearing maroon and gold. You know, the one in Chestnut Hill with the surefire Hobey Baker Award winner.

Massachusetts-Lowell has something to add to the discussion.

I0000jIolVlpUDzQ Massachusetts Lowell serves notice that its taking multiple threats to NCAA tournament

Hockey East playoffs

See the tournament bracket and get links to schedules and stories at Hockey East Playoff Central.

Entering Saturday’s Hockey East championship game, A.J. White, Joe Pendenza and Josh Holmstrom had combined for five goals and 10 assists in the previous nine games they were put together.

It’s fair to say with numbers like that, this group flew under the radar, outshined by the star-studded performance of goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.

(For the record, Hellebuyck was the tournament’s unanimous MVP selection after posting his second consecutive shutout — a first in the tournament’s history.)

With Boston College eliminated in the quarterfinals, Saturday night was an opportunity for the trio to seize the spotlight. And they didn’t disappoint, giving Hellebuyck more than enough support: two goals and five assists.

And yet, mirroring the last month, no one player became the go-to guy on offense during the tournament.

“It’s a common theme, game to game, you never know who is going to be scoring the goals,” Pendenza said.

“It’s been a point of emphasis since I arrived. To have a great team at Lowell, you have to have multiple threats,” River Hawks coach Norm Bazin added.

A perfect example is the emergence of White as a goal scorer.

Last season was a quiet one. As a freshman, he notched only two goals. Leading into this game, his career total was a meager eight.

But four of those goals (and five assists) have come in the last 12 games. During that span, he’s been without his regular line mates only twice. And in those games, only one point was registered by the trio.

It’s fair to say that the double-dose of experience with Pendenza and Holmstrom at his flank has helped White’s game flourish.

“They lead by example. You know where to be,” White said. “We’ve had a lot of chances the last few weekends. Our game style is to get [the puck] low and grind it out, and try to score some ugly goals.”

The River Hawks’ first goal was set up by that very style, with Pendenza shooting low along the goal line and White chipping in a rebound spilled by Casey DeSmith.

That nuanced positioning couldn’t be possible without veteran guidance.

“Every day in practice, we’re just doing little stuff around the net,” Holmstrom said. “That goal he was able to chip in was something we work on. To see that pay off for him, it’s great to see.”

“They’re very vocal,” White noted. “They don’t get on you, but if they see something — maybe where I should be, or to do something different — they let me know.”

The leading scorer of the trio is Pendenza. But his senior season has been a tale of two halves: highly productive early on, with a bit of a lull after the holiday break.

Yet he still led the River Hawks in scoring, and perhaps fittingly, led the team with three assists on the night.

A resurgence for Pendenza, with his line clicking, comes at the perfect time for the River Hawks, a team whose only flaw may have been a lack of firepower down the stretch.

“We’ve got some good chemistry going,” Pendenza noted. “We’re just three players that play the same style, know where each other is going, work hard, and do the simple things.”

Saturday was also a much-deserved curtain call on the Hockey East stage for Holmstrom, who, like Pendenza, provided critical leadership as this team emerged from a meager five wins in 2011, through a change in coaching regimes, to reach the heights of two Hockey East championships.

“It’s very special,” Holmstrom smiled. “Obviously, that first year we went through some tough times, but everybody stuck with it. Everybody believes in each other.”

“This one wasn’t just for us,” he added. “We were doing this for a lot of the Lowell teams throughout the years who haven’t had this chance.”

And oh, what a chance it is: The River Hawks have a plethora of tools at their disposal to reach the Frozen Four for the second straight year.

Bazin didn’t mince words about it, saying pointedly: “I think this could be the best team I’ve coached.”


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