In Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald’s three years at the helm, the River Hawks might well have been called the Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas.
In year one, they’d have earned an NCAA tournament berth had not three top players missed the entire stretch run competing for the French Olympic team. In year two, they posted a 10-2-4 record in games in which their goaltending could muster at least an .866 save percentage, but even that sub-mediocre mark happened all too rarely as they went 1-18-1 in games goaltended below the Swiss Cheese Line. Last year, forfeits caused by an administrative error knocked them from a fourth place finish, one point behind New Hampshire, to sixth.
Well, this might be the year that Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda becomes We-Did-It.
Last year’s team consisted almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores. Having lost only one minor contributor, the added maturity of the returning players plus the potential of some key recruits could make for not only home ice in the Hockey East playoffs but also an NCAA tournament berth.
“I’d say we were a top four [in Hockey East] team on ice last year,” MacDonald says. “We were pretty close. But every year at the college level you’re always looking for who’s going to have that breakthrough season. Then when he has that kind of year, can he sustain it and build upon it?
“Those are the keys because you’re at such a developmental stage in these young athletes’ lives. You’re going to have a Stephen Saviano [at New Hampshire] who goes from a few points in his freshman year to a great sophomore season, a better junior year and a tremendous senior year. Or are you going to fall off quite a bit? That’s the sign of a true competitor and athlete.
“We had a few of those guys take big jumps last year: Elias Godoy, Ben Walter and Mark Pandolfo. Will they perform at the same level again this year or even more? And then who are going to be the next guys to take the big jump? I think we’re poised to do all of those things this year just based on our summer activity and our fall training. The strength and conditioning and attitude is just tremendous right now.”
On the other hand, the River Hawks could have been overachieving last year and gotten a bit full of themselves, setting themselves up for a big fall.
“I think our group is pretty good at that,” MacDonald says. “We’ve seen the highs — maybe not as high as we want them — but we’ve certainly seen the lows. Knowing the attitude of our team, I don’t worry about them taking a step back, but I do worry a little bit about them living up to other people’s expectations.
“We still have really only one or two seniors so we’re still not that mature yet. That’s a little bit of my concern. In Hockey East, two out of the last three years the number one picked team has really not performed even close to their expectations with the exception being BC last year. That wasn’t due to ineptness; it’s due to what a tough league it is. You just get on a bad cycle and it’s tough to get out of it.”
Last year’s netminding, expected by many to be among the worst in the league, was a pleasant surprise. Chris Davidson (2.87 GAA, .896 Sv%) rebounded from a disastrous sophomore year and John Yaros (2.83, .907) played well when he became eligible in the second half. However, not being “among the worst in the league” and backstopping your team to the Promised Land are two very different things. As a result, both will be pushed by highly regarded freshman Peter Vetri.
“We haven’t proven that we have a Prime Time goaltender yet,” MacDonald says. “For us to be in the top four, somebody has to step forward and be a good solid Hockey East goalie. Not great, not winning games for us, but just a good solid Hockey East goalie.
“You dissect that position and the timing of goals is everything in how it affects the overall psyche of the team. [We need to] stay away from those kind of things happening to us.
“I’m more optimistic that we will have that this year than I have been since my first year here. That’s going to be a key for us for sure.”
The defense is led by sophomore Cleve Kinley and junior Matt Collar. The other veterans may get pushed by two skilled freshmen, Grant Farrell and Kelly Sullivan.
“Kinley was a diamond in the rough and a really underrated player,” MacDonald says. “He played huge minutes for us against everybody’s best players. From my seat, he was phenomenal last year as a freshman. Matt Collar was another Scott Stevens-type influence for our defense.
“we had other guys who chipped in and played, at times, extremely well, guys like Peter Tormey, Adam Stanieich, Jake Pence and Kim Brandvold. We need them to step up their intensity and their consistency.”
Up front, depth is the key. Juniors Godoy (18-23–41), Walter, Pandolfo, Andrew Martin and Danny O’Brien are joined by sophomore Jason Tejchma as the top threats. Godoy’s 41 points match that of any returning player in the league and all but Pandolfo (13 goals) finished with at least 20 points.
“Maybe we don’t have a top-end guy like [BC’s] Patrick Eaves or [Ryan] Shannon, but I wouldn’t trade any of my forwards for anybody,” MacDonald says. “Collectively, we’ll be able to roll out 12 real good Division I forwards every night. And guys like Godoy, Walter, Martin, O’Brien and Pandolfo can really light the lamp and be dynamic at times.”
Watch out for the Hawks this year.