On Dec. 1, the Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks lost to New Hampshire 5-2 for the second straight night.
At that point, Lowell had gotten off to a somewhat miserable 4-7-1 start. Sure, there was a win at Colorado College and an 8-2 drubbing of rival Massachusetts in those four wins.
But this was a UMass-Lowell team coming off its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1996 and returning the core nucleus of what made last year’s team a success.
At that point in the season, it would’ve been easy for the River Hawks to say, “Boy, we overachieved last year.”
Truthfully, that may have been the case for the 2011-12 River Hawks team. Under first-year coach Norm Bazin, Lowell seemed to have a renewed focus with a talented group of players. A year after the club had won just five games, last year’s Lowell team put 24 wins on the board and was a game away from the school’s first Frozen Four.
The scenario, well documented to this point, was an unlikely one. But with the success came expectations.
When you start with a 4-7-1 record in your first 12 games once those expectations are placed on you, however, you can’t fault anyone for saying maybe last year’s team was a bit of a fraud.
Something happened after that pair of 5-2 losses to UNH. Maybe the team was sick of being pushed around. Maybe it saw that the next few games were winnable facing Northeastern, Harvard, Bentley, Clarkson (for two) and Vermont (for two).
Whatever the explanation, the River Hawks responded. They won all of the aforementioned games, plus single tilts against Providence and Boston University and suddenly had reason to feel good about themselves.
Home ice? Yeah, that was back on the table. Another NCAA bid? Possibly, as Lowell jumped to the top 10 in the PairWise Rankings, but it was so early it was difficult to even talk about such things.
What happened next, though, transcended any expectations. Wins continued and now, with two weeks remaining in the regular season, Lowell has won 15 of its last 18 games and, amazingly, sits in a four-way tie for first place after Tuesday night’s 4-2 win at Boston College.
It’s the latest that Lowell has held a share of first place since the 1995-96 season, when the River Hawks were tied with Boston University for first with two games to play.
What can’t be lost, though, in this turnaround is the ability of this team to remain positive and focused after a rough beginning. Watching the team, it’s pretty apparent that there is a never-too-high, never-too-low emotion that comes from a head coach in Bazin who seems to live that mentality as his daily mantra.
Despite the slow start, Bazin said the team knew that everything was still a work in progress and improvement was more than possible.
“I think we have a character group,” Bazin said. “The season is a marathon. It’s no different than [a single] game.
“I’d like to tell you that starts matter. But we plan for 65 minutes and if we get it done in 60, great. It’s a long game and you have to be ready for shifts in momentum.
“I think these guys, credit to them, there’s some good character in the locker room. We were 4-7-1. We fully realize when you start off with two games against Boston College and three against UNH, those are historically some of the better teams in our league so you can’t get too down. You just have to keep going and find your game.”
That’s something Lowell obviously has done. It has been more apparent in the club’s last three games, two against BU and one against BC. In all three, Lowell made it difficult, if not near impossible, for their opponents to score. And on Tuesday, when BC did score — twice tying the game — Lowell responded both times.
“We were fully aware that [BC] was going to score eventually,” Bazin said. “However, it’s to avoid the flurries when you’re on the road, especially against an explosive offense like Boston College.
“The real key to the game was how these guys responded after they were scored on. Early in the game, the next shift [after BC’s goal] we scored one of our own. That’s a big shift because it swings momentum back in your favor. That was one of the telltale signs for me that we were ready to play and play our game.”
For the first time since 1996, Lowell controls its destiny when it comes to the regular season title. Four wins — two vs. Merrimack, two vs. Providence — would clinch at least a tie for the regular season title, something the school has never won.
That, though, is far in the distance for Bazin.
“You’ll see me smile if we’re still talking about [first place] two weeks from now,” Bazin said. “There’s still a lot of hockey to be played. Every opponent, I don’t know if any one is stronger than anybody else.
“If we’re still having news conferences after wins, we’ll probably be in a pretty good position.”
Since Hockey East began in the 1984-85 season, never has the race heading to the final weekends of the regular season been this close.
There have been some good three- and four-team races for the league title. This, however, is the first six-team race for the regular season title (which BC coach Jerry York is lobbying to name the Bertagna Cup).
Four teams are tied for first: BC, Lowell, New Hampshire and Providence.
First things first: In case you’re worrying about tiebreakers, here is how they work.
When there are more than two teams tied for the same spot, you take the composite record of those teams against one another. If one team has the best record, it takes the highest spot.
(There are too many games still to play among those top four to illustrate.)
In the case of a four-team tie, that would require you to repeat the same step with three teams once your remove the highest team. Once two teams remain, you compare those two teams against one another using the league’s usual tiebreaking procedure (head-to-head, number of wins, record against first-place team, etc.).
Now, with that out of the way, let’s look at the pros and cons for the teams currently deadlocked in the top spot:
• Three-time defending Lamoriello Cup champs. This team knows how to play late in the season.
• BC plays Providence and Vermont, two games each, though three on the road. BC historically has fared well against both teams, but it skated to a 3-3 tie vs. Providence earlier this season.
• The hottest team of the quarter, having won 15 of 18 (15-2-1) and beaten BU (twice) and BC in the last three games.
• Not a ton of experience in big games but hasn’t seemed to faze them down the stretch.
• Facing Merrimack and Providence in the final two weekends so may (with Providence) have the toughest schedule remaining.
• Owns league’s longest unbeaten streak at seven games, though four of those seven were ties (3-0-4).
• Is the only team in the quartet that will play four games against teams with which it is tied (2 vs. BC, 2 vs. Lowell).
• On paper, has easiest schedule in final four games (two vs. Massachusetts, two vs. Maine).
• All four remaining games are at home, where UNH holds a 9-3-1 mark this season.
• On the flip side, UNH is 4-5-3 in its last 12 games.
What will happen certainly remains to be seen. But don’t expect too much to be decided in the Hockey East standings until 9:30 p.m. EST on March 9.
And the race for eighth
Think the only big races are for the league title and home ice? Think again.
Look at the bottom of Hockey East and you will see four teams still in contention for the final two playoffs spots.
I feel like I’m possibly being generous by keeping Northeastern in the playoff picture. The Huskies are four points behind eighth-place UMass with four games left but have won just one of their last nine league games and play twice at Maine and a home-and-home with BU to close the season.
The games versus Maine could be winnable but will be played at Alfond Arena. And the BU series isn’t exactly an automatic loss given that NU has won the first two games versus BU this season. But it’s safe to say that Northeastern is on life support.
The other side of that is Vermont. The Catamounts have a 4-2-1 mark in their last seven and are two points clear of eighth-place UMass and three clear of Maine. Of the four teams at the bottom, Vermont is playing the best hockey.
Which brings us to what may be a two-team race for the final playoffs spot. UMass holds a single-point lead over Maine for the eighth and final slot. UMass has the more difficult schedule on paper, though, playing two at New Hampshire before closing with a home-and-home series against Merrimack. Maine hosts Northeastern in what could become a must-win two games if it hopes to keep playoff hopes alive. The Black Bears close at New Hampshire for two, a border war series in which strange things always seem to happen.
It’s impossible to predict what may happen here but, just as we can enjoy the race for the league title, there is a ton of battling to be done for seventh and eighth.