Turning around programs the name of the game for Massachusetts-Lowell coach Bazin

Last week, Dave Hendrickson said in this space that were it not for Boston College’s solid play it would have been impossible not to write about Massachusetts-Lowell’s recent success.

This week, there is no excuse to skip past the River Hawks.

With a 3-0 victory last Friday night over Merrimack, Lowell moved into first place in Hockey East. Even after a 2-1 loss to Maine on Saturday, the River Hawks hold the league lead — albeit by a razor-thin one point lead over Boston College and Boston University.

Thanks to longtime Lowell Sun beat writer Chaz Scoggins, the leading historian of Lowell hockey, we know that this is the latest in the season the River Hawks have sat atop the Hockey East standings. Considering that most — including yours truly — put Lowell near the bottom of the preseason polls, that’s possibly the most incredible accomplishment of any college hockey team this season.

In my opinion, you have to think that first-year head coach Norm Bazin is the head-and-shoulders leader for Hockey East coach of the year (if not the Spencer Penrose Award). He has the River Hawks team — which last year won just five games — playing an up-tempo game that gives many of their opponents fits.

Bazin, while happy with recent outcomes that included a 10-game home winning streak (that ended with Saturday’s loss), still isn’t ready to celebrate.

“If you tell me that after the regular season [that we’re in first place], I will be smiling,” said Bazin.

While many may be shocked at Bazin’s immediate success at his alma mater, his results as a head coach at Hamilton display one thing: Bazin likes to win.

Taking over that program three years ago, Bazin wasted little time turning things around. After a mediocre first season in which the team posted a 9-15-1 record, the Continentals were 15-9-2 in season two and 14-7-4 in Bazin’s third and final season. That record was good for Hamilton’s first-ever regular season league title, that for a program that began play in 1918.

Obviously, Lowell fans had high hopes when Bazin arrived on campus last summer. But even the most optimistic people couldn’t have believed this team could be poised for a regular season Hockey East title and the team’s first NCAA bid since 1996, two years after Bazin graduated.

The formula for success for Lowell? Playing a fast-paced puck-possession game. Bazin’s belief is that keeping the opposition from possessing the puck, naturally, will keep it off the scoreboard.

That was the case last Friday against Merrimack. After an up-tempo first period where Lowell and Merrimack each plastered 15 shots on goal, the River Hawks turned the game into the one they wanted to play. Lowell spent much of the final two periods in its offensive zone, cycling the puck and, eventually, beating standout netminder Joe Cannata.

The 3-0 final hardly indicated the intensity of the game, but a quick look at the shot totals, where Lowell outshot the Warriors 27-16 over the final 40 minutes, told much of the story.

The River Hawks may not put forward a first-team all star (their best statistical player is goaltender Doug Carr, but even he will struggle to beat out Cannata for the first team). But Lowell certainly has a number of talented forwards that provide an extremely balanced attack.

Fifteen River Hawks players have scored goals, led by Derek Arnold’s 15. Seven players already have 20 or more points, though Scott Wilson and Riley Wetmore lead the team with 28 points each. That balanced offense has been key to Lowell increasing its goal total this season by a full goal over last year (3.44 goals per game this year as opposed to 2.44 a season ago).

The standout, though, is Carr. It is difficult to find any player in Division I who has improved so dramatically in a single season. A year ago, his stats line was ugly: 3.63 goals against average, .896 save percentage and a 4-13-3 record. This year: 1.81 goals against, .935 save percentage and an 18-5-0 mark. Staggering statistics.

There is no telling what will happen in the next three weekends and whether Lowell will hold on for its first regular season title. Regardless, this is a team that has gone on one enjoyable ride this season with plenty of promise down the home stretch.

For all the beans …

A week ago, I fed Dave a note that the Beanpot semifinals didn’t sell out for the first time since 1978 — the same night as the famous Blizzard of ’78. Inherent in such a comment is the fact that the tournament could be losing some of its luster.

Face it, the tournament hasn’t seen a championship without the word “Boston” in its name since Harvard took the crowd in 1993. Many people said that BC and BU should just skip the semis and play a non-conference game on the second Monday every February.

But it’s hard to talk negatively about the tournament after Monday’s final, easily one of the most exciting games ever played in Beanpot history.

The game was an instant classic, presenting an extremely fast tempo throughout, outstanding goaltending from both Parker Milner and Kieran Millan, and an atmosphere in the stands that matched any playoff game you will see.

So, on the record, I will take back anything negative I said or implied about the Beanpot. This is a tournament that is unmatched by any regular-season event in college hockey.

BC coach Jerry York summed it up best.

“The last few years, people have talked about has the Beanpot lost its luster or how are the crowds,” said York. “[Monday] was a statement. That place was jammed with people who are fans of college hockey. The Beanpot is in good hands. It has been for a long time and it’s going to continue, particularly with hockey games like we saw [Monday].”

Well said, coach. Well said.

Quick hits

• This weekend, Hockey East is presenting what could be some of the best matchups in the nation. No other league can lay claim to pitting four top 10 teams against one another. No. 2 BU and No. 6 Lowell and No. 3 BC and No. 9 Merrimack will each, respectively, square off in home-and-home series. With all four (as well as Maine) within two points of one another at the top of the league, it’s quite possible that these two series could have a major impact on the Hockey East standings.

• While home ice is the goal of any team in Hockey East, whichever club draws Providence or New Hampshire in the opening round of the playoffs may feel like there is no benefit to finishing near the top of the league. Both the Friars and Wildcats are quite possibly playing their best hockey of the season at the right time. Though I’m hardly trying to prognosticate, there is something telling me that seeing the top four Hockey East teams at the Garden on St. Patty’s Day weekend is highly unlikely.

• Remarkable stat of the week: Boston University allowed its first short-handed goal of the season on Monday in a 3-2 loss in the Beanpot final. Yes, going almost an entire season without giving up a shorty is good. What’s more impressive is the fact that Boston University spends more time on the power play than most. BU’s 143 power plays ranks tied for 11th in the nation.