Massachusetts-Lowell starts season with unknowns aplenty

Entering last season, the Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks had the highest expectations. Coming off a heartbreaking loss in the 2009 Hockey East title game to the eventual national champion, Boston University, the River Hawks seemed poised to finally climb to the top of the league, boasting an experienced lineup and two senior goaltenders.

That season of promise never came to fruition. A combination of injuries, lack of consistency, the inability to score goals when they needed them — and on and on — led to Lowell finishing in a three-way tie for third place but losing all of the tiebreakers and thus being sent on the road for the opening round of the playoffs.

That playoff series against Maine eventually ended in an overtime loss in Game 3 after Lowell seemed in control after winning the first game of the series. With the series defeat went not just hopes and dreams, but also 12 talented senior players who played their last game for the River Hawks.

Thus, a season later, there are a number of question marks in the River Hawks’ dressing room, which makes it difficult to know if this is a team that will contend or fall to the bottom of the Hockey East barrel.

“There is excitement because of the unknowns,” Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald said. “Losing four very talented senior defensemen and two outstanding goaltenders, there are enough unknowns there to keep the excitement level high.”

An interesting spin, for sure, from the veteran bench boss. But heading into the season, only he knows just how good this team can be.

The biggest question entering likely is goaltending. After graduating two No. 1 netminders in Carton Hutton and Nevin Hamilton, there is virtually zero experience between the pipes. T.J. Massie, who was on the River Hawks roster two seasons ago but returned to juniors midseason to get more experience, returns seeking the open spot. Michael Heffron, who was the third goaltender a season ago, never appeared in a game.

“It’s a wide-open net, for sure,” MacDonald said. “We think between T.J. Massie, Doug Carr and Mark Boulanger we have three talented guys. We’re going to work closely with Eddie Walsh, our goaltending coach, who we have a tremendous amount of confidence in. And whoever plays the best is going to play.”

Beyond goaltending, there is a need for Lowell to increase its offense production. Two seasons ago when Lowell ascended the ranks, the team not only got solid production from its forwards but also from talented blueliner Maury Edwards.

Last season, when defenses keyed on the hard-shooting defenseman, his production — and consequently the team’s — went down significantly.

“We need [Maury] to play to the best of his ability,” MacDonald said. “We know he’s a very talented player with great experience. I don’t think there’s any question he’s going to be heavily relied on by us, and I think he’ll rise to the occasion.”

So just how good can Lowell be this season? That question remains unanswered. If you’re looking for insight, though, know that the 13 members of the freshman class likely could play a role if there is, indeed, success.

“Our freshman class is the best quantitative class we’ve brought in,” MacDonald said. “The quality of players from top to bottom is really, really good. In the past, we’d have one key player go down and it would have an adverse effect on our team. From this point moving forward, we’ll have real quality depth in our program.”