Massachusetts-Lowell’s improvement could lead it to be a major player in Hockey East

OK, folks. Let’s start this week out with a bit of a brain teaser.

What Hockey East team ranks highest nationally in offense?

Not sure yet? OK, this same team has the best power play nationally among Hockey East teams.

Boston College, you say? Nope. Merrimack? Still wrong.

I’ll give you one more clue. This team has one of the nation’s most improved offenses, scoring 3.88 goals per game compared to just 2.44 goals per game last year.

The team that currently lays claim to all of these: none other than the Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks.

Lowell, under first-year coach Norm Bazin, is in the process of a true renaissance in the Merrimack Valley. A team that won just five games a season ago, finishing dead last in Hockey East, has already matched that win total well before Thanksgiving and is coming off three wins that raised eyebrows of most fans around the league.

It’s possible that since the opening weekend of Lowell’s season, hopes and expectations should have been raised. The River Hawks posted a road sweep of Minnesota State to begin. But they were brought back to Earth by a loss to Connecticut and a sweep at the hands of then-No. 1 Boston College.

Visions of grandeur had certainly been tamed.

But as quickly as people began to turn their heads away, they’ve been turned back. A crushing defeat of Boston University two weekends ago was followed by the team’s first two-game sweep of Maine in Orono since 1985, Hockey East’s inaugural season.

All three of the recent victories have been extremely different. The BU win was a 7-1 crushing of a Terriers team that scored 16 seconds into the game and then watched the River Hawks skate circles around them for the remaining 59-plus minutes. In Friday’s win over Maine, Lowell built a three-goal lead and never looked back. Then Saturday, the River Hawks fought back from two goals down in the third and broke a 3-3 tie in the game’s final minute to walk away with the sweep.

“They were three vastly different types of games,” said Bazin. “The character of the team is an ongoing process and ours is a work in progress. But we’re finding a lot out about our guys after every weekend.”

One thing his club has found out over the last two weekends is that it can score. In the weekend sweep again Boston College three weeks ago, Lowell outshot the Eagles in both games. In the end, though, the difference on the scoreboard was Lowell’s inability to finish. Since then, that has changed.

“Finishing chances has been one of the focal points of practice since day one,” said Bazin. “Boston College, they’re a very good hockey team, but we felt we played well enough to win at least one of those two games. We certainly generated a lot of chances and shots but we weren’t able to execute at net front.

“These past two weekends, in these three games, for whatever reason, we have been able to execute so it’s a nice change of pace.”

The sudden offensive resurgence for Lowell has come from multiple sources. Twelve different River Hawks players have netted goals this season, led by Riley Wetmore with six. Five players are averaging a point a game or better. That depth is what Bazin hopes can help catapult his team toward the top of the league standings.

“It’s necessary for any team in college hockey to have depth in scoring to be a threat,” said Bazin. “You look at all the good teams we have played thus far and a lot of them have that depth. We’re just trying to develop our players from within.”

If there remains any question mark for the River Hawks, it’s probably goaltending. There was a competition for the starting position in training camp, and it seems as though the recent play of sophomore Doug Carr had propelled him to the No. 1 job, but that’s not the case, Bazin said.

“Carr is certainly making a good case for himself [to be No. 1],” Bazin said. “But we haven’t settled on a No. 1 yet and we’re still giving kids chances.

“We’re not looking too far ahead. The goaltending situation has been a work in progress from one week to the next. However, Doug had two good outings last week and he deserves a second look.”

Not lost on anyone that follows the Lowell program is that the program’s rebirth coincides with the arrival of Bazin, a quasi-native son who played for the River Hawks in their heyday in the mid-1990s and then was an assistant coach with the club under Tim Whitehead at the end of that decade.

Since Bazin left in 2000, the school has changed in many ways, he said, though all are for the best. A major investment led by Chancellor Marty Meehan, who arrived at Lowell four years ago, is not only making the campus more attractive, but built out the campus separated by the Merrimack River.

A major focus has been placed on increasing the number of residential students at a college that long has been thought of as a commuter school. Lowell’s hockey attendance this season is averaging more than 5,000 per game, and that to Bazin is a major step in the right direction.

“I hope our team can sort of mimic the exciting progress [of building the campus] in that there are so many great things that are happening on campus and we’re happy to be a small part of it,” said Bazin.

If this Lowell team can continue to improve on the ice, the role it plays will hardly be small. In Hockey East, Lowell could become a major player.

Points don’t measure positive steps for Terriers

At the end of last weekend, the scoreboard for Boston University showed a weekend split: a loss on Friday to Merrimack and a win on Sunday at Boston College.

Two points might satisfy some, but not usually a program that hopes to compete for a national championship each year.

If anything, you might think that the way that the Friday loss occurred would upset a coach. BU led Merrimack 2-1 in the closing minutes, only to take a late penalty, see the Warriors pull goaltender Joe Cannata for an extra attacker in the final two minutes and score to force overtime. Merrimack netted the winner just 22 seconds into the extra frame to hand BU a loss.

Now, quite possibly it was a 5-0 drubbing of rival Boston College on Sunday that had BU coach Jack Parker thinking positive, but his commentary that he really liked the way his team played throughout the weekend certainly seemed very sincere.

“Our team felt like a BU hockey team this weekend,” said Parker, referring to his team’s solid play in both games.

The Terriers entered the weekend coming off an ugly 7-1 loss to Lowell the previous weekend, something that stewed with the team through the off days.

“The absolute lack of effort, lack of respect or both up at UMass-Lowell,” said Parker, “they were embarrassed by that and they came out fired up to play.

“It was nice that we had the two top teams in our league to play this weekend after how we played last weekend,” said Parker. “That was good for our egos, our psyches.”

A note about the polls

It’s almost certain that the folks in North Andover, Mass., were waiting with baited breath for the weekly polls to come out Monday. And with good reason.

Merrimack, a team that has never held a No. 1 ranking nationally, began last weekend sixth in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll. Each of the teams from first through fifth lost a game last weekend. Merrimack, with its overtime win at BU, remained the only team in the nation without a loss.

When the polls came out, the Warriors had the most first-place votes among the 50 voters with 25, or half of the available votes. As we all know by now, Minnesota, which got just 20 votes, held onto the top spot by the slimmest of margins.

The exact same thing happened in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Poll.

That may have left the Warriors faithful thinking, “What the [email protected]#$?”

Now, before you all jump down my throat that polls are useless, polls are just opinions, of course I agree. Thus, so does worrying about a poll.

But there is a certain je ne sais quoi that goes along with being No. 1, particularly if it would be the first time in team history.

I’ll be the first to say that a jump from sixth to first is a big one in any poll. And, I will also admit that I actually voted Minnesota first, Merrimack second.

My reasoning was that Minnesota has played a more difficult schedule to this point. Though the Gophers have played some cupcakes (ahem, Sacred Heart), they’ve also faced the defending national champions, along with North Dakota and Wisconsin.

Merrimack’s toughest opponent thus far is Boston University. The Warriors tied and needed overtime to beat Northeastern, which sits at 1-7-2. What probably seemed like a great win at Maine to begin the season has since been devalued by Maine’s recent play and a 3-6-1 record.

So while Merrimack may feel slighted, it’s important to understand there will be plenty of time to reach that No. 1 ranking. There’s been so much volatility at the top this season, success in the upcoming weeks could also translate to that top ranking.

Caution, though: The fact that Merrimack didn’t reach No. 1 despite amassing the most first-place votes does raise one red flag to me. It means that there are enough voters that don’t respect the Warriors enough to even consider them for second, third or maybe even fourth.

Thus, any slipup, particularly in the coming schedule that includes Alabama-Huntsville, Providence and Vermont, could result in a major drop.

Therein lies the rub with polls. It takes time to earn the respect to get to the top and it takes respect to stay there. For Merrimack, though, there will be ample opportunity to prove its ability to succeed where it really counts: on the ice.

Quick hits

• Providence, which Dave featured last week, continues to roll. The Friars were perfect in their four-game home stand (the team’s first four-game winning streak since 2008-09). The real test, though, will come in the six games before the holiday break, five of which will be played away from Schneider Arena and three of which will be against the league’s top teams, Merrimack (for two) and Boston College.

• A tip of the hat to Massachusetts defenseman Conor Allen, who became just the third blueliner in school history to record a hat trick, netting it on Friday against Holy Cross.

• I have to wonder if Saturday’s come-from-behind 4-4 tie for Vermont against New Hampshire might turn this team around. Vermont has the talent but to date just hasn’t performed as expected.