LOWELL, MASS. — These aren’t your parent’s UMass-Lowell River Hawks.
Sporting a new-look offensive under first-year coach Blaise MacDonald, the River Hawks used an early third period explosion en route to a 7-3 season-opening victory over Niagara Friday night.
The new face of the River Hawks is a speed and quickness game from forwards matched with an offensive awareness from the defense that is a complete 180 from teams of years past.
The Lowell forwards consistently made the Purple Eagle defense look like revolving doors. And the Lowell blueliners stepped into the offense to notch three goals and five assists. No returning defenseman for the Hawks even posted double-digits in points last season.
All of this is part what MacDonald hopes is a fresh look for the Hawks.
“I look at the Lowell teams that were successful in the past and they had some great [offensive] production from the defensemen,” said MacDonald, who ironically, even though the schedule was set well before his hiring, still opened his Hawks career against his former team, the Purple Eagles.
Leading the offensive push from the defense was captain Chris Gustafson matched with highly-touted rookie Baptiste Amar. Both players notched a goal and assist with Gustafson’s giving Lowell a lead they wouldn’t relinquish and Amar notching the game-winner.
“It’s nice to get the monkey off the back,” said Gustafson about scoring his first goal. In 104 games entering Friday, Gustafson had tallied only seven times.
Amar is the third player in four years to arrive at Lowell from France, joining sophomore Laurent Meunier and senior Yorick Treille. Certainly a recruiting gem for the Hawks, they could be hurt when all three report to the French national team for the 2002 Olympics this February.
As celebrative as the first win was for MacDonald and the River Hawks, on the other side was Niagara coach Dave Burkholder, a former associate head coach under MacDonald also coaching his first game.
Said Burkholder about meeting his former partner at Niagara and college teammate MacDonald: “All week I was pretty excited about [facing MacDonald in the opener], but when we got to game time, it was like, ‘Oh boy, I guess I wish I wasn’t coaching my first college game against him.’
“There were a lot of mixed emotions. One part of me was thinking of how I’d feel if I spoiled his home opener and then I thought, ‘If he blows me out how am I going to feel.’ I didn’t know if we’d end up fighting in the parking lot.”
Much to Burkholder’s dismay, it was the River Hawks who gave their coach MacDonald the quick welcoming. Just 79 seconds into the game, Meunier fed a no-look pass into the slot to find defenseman Jerramie Dommish, who one-timed the puck past Eagles goaltender Rob Bonk (23 saves) for a 1-0 lead.
The defense was making contributions on just the first goal.
“It definitely helps [to score that early],” said MacDonald. “It makes you feel like you have a lot of freedom and spirit out there.
The Hawks nearly extended the lead at 6:35 when Amar’s shot from the right point was deflected but Bonk was saved by the right post.
Lowell controlled play for the early part of the frame but its first defensive breakdown was costly. Niagara’s Hannu Karru pushed a 2-on-1 pass from Rob Bumbaco through the legs of Jimi St. John at 11:17 to even the score at one.
Dave Hominuk was sent off for elbowing at 12:49 giving the Lowell special teams the opportunity to retake the lead. Geoff Schomogyi deflected a point shot by Gustafson over the left shoulder of Bonk at 13:38.
Early in the second, a Purple Eagle power play combined with a Lowell miscue allowed Niagara to again even the score. When St. John (14 saves) fanned on a clearing pass around the right faceoff circle, Nick Kormanyos was “Johnny-On-The-Spot” to bury the puck into the open net to tie the game at two.
Lowell had ample opportunities to regain the lead, as both Schomogyi and defenseman-turned-forward Kevin Kotyluk were stopped on breakaways in the early stages of the second.
Gustafson, though, finally did cash in with an unassisted tally at 12:41. After holding the puck in the zone after a Niagara clearing attempt, Gustafson fired a hard shot that Bonk kicked right back to the senior blueliner. This time, his shot back to the net moved through a tough screen and over the shoulder of Bonk to give the Hawks a 3-2 lead.
When asked if he picked the corner with the shot, Gustafson was quick to joke.
“You guys should know me better than that by now. I’ve been here four years.”
Heading into the third period with a one-goal lead, it was an instant burst from the locker room that sealed the game. Amar began the scoring with a screen shot from the left point that beat Bonk over the shoulder for the fourth time just 36 seconds in.
36 seconds later, Peter Hay finished off a feed from Tom Rouleau in the low slot to give the Hawks a 5-2 edge.
At 5:11, Lowell connected again when Mark Concannon made a nifty move around Bonk after taking a pass from Ed McGrane to give the Hawks a four-goal cushion.
The teams would trade goals with Thomas Clayton picking up the Eagles’ second power play goal of the night for Niagara and Rouleau finishing the scoring at 14:33.
With the Purple Eagles out of the way, Lowell will now attempt to take on similar but much different fowl when they travel to Boston College. The defending national champion BC Eagles hold a 15-game winning streak dating back to March 15, 1997.
That, though, doesn’t deter a confident-sounding MacDonald.
“We’re due,” said MacDonald simply. “I think the players are extremely motivated for the challenge and opportunity to play Boston College, in particular on the road.
“I would be shocked if we didn’t put forth an incredible effort.”