When Massachusetts-Lowell dropped three of its first four games, it wasn’t quite time for River Hawks fans to get one leg up on the Tobin Bridge railing, but it still felt like a cold slap in the face.
Lowell had played great hockey over the latter two-thirds of last year and opened this season as the nation’s No. 1 team.
Last weekend, the River Hawks took two huge steps in the right direction. On the road, they defeated Michigan State 4-1 and fourth-ranked Michigan 2-1.
“Every weekend is an important weekend,” Lowell coach Norm Bazin says. “We certainly wanted to come back with a strong team effort and complete our game and round it out. It was a nice move in that direction.
“[But] by no means do I think we have everything solved. We have to continue to work and develop as a team. We’re new in several positions and guys are developing their roles and developing this year’s identity.”
The biggest turnaround was on special teams. In the first four games of the season, the River Hawks scored only once in 25 power-play opportunities; while short-handed, they allowed five goals in 18 chances. They were outscored on special teams in every game.
There’s no sugar-coating those results: They’re brutal, making it almost impossible to win.
While out West, however, the River Hawks turned those results inside-out. They killed all seven power-play chances against them and scored three for themselves in eight opportunities.
Night and day.
“Our special teams had to improve this past weekend and thankfully it did,” Bazin says. “We’re making small steps in several different areas that we needed to improve in order to have a chance and an opportunity for success at the end of the night.”
Bazin rotated goaltenders Connor Hellebuyck and Doug Carr over the first four games, but stuck with Hellebuyck out West.
“He’s a Michigan kid and I thought it would be nice for his family and friends to see him play as much as possible,” Bazin says.
The rotation is likely to return in some form or other, at least for the time being. Hellebuyck’s performance as a freshman last year was astounding — a 1.37 GAA and a .952 save percentage — but fans shouldn’t forget that two years ago Carr earned second-team All-Hockey East honors and was a runner-up league player of the year.
“It’s day to day,” Bazin says. “I’ve got two very capable goaltenders and I expect to use them both.”
A new face on the blue line, Michael Kapla, has contributed, assisting on four goals, but it would be presumptuous to assume that he’s taking over departed star Chad Ruhwedel’s role.
“[Kapla] been good for us, but I don’t think anyone is going to fill Ruhwedel’s shoes,” Bazin says. “He’s someone in time that hopefully can fill a void, but for the time being he’s being acclimated to college hockey and doing a nice job of it.”
Lowell now heads into its first Hockey East action, taking on New Hampshire in a home-and-home series. (The meeting with Massachusetts was a nonconference game that doesn’t count in the standings.)
For programs unlikely to qualify for the NCAA tournament, league games take on greater importance since the focus is on the standings. The River Hawks, however, are playing on the national stage so their so-so 3-3 record matters a great deal.
“For us, all the games are equal,” Bazin says. “Obviously, we didn’t get off to the start we’d like. Whenever you don’t win your first game it’s certainly concerning, but at the same time it’s a long, long season and we’ve played what we felt was excellent competition.
“This week is going to be another challenge for our team to keep growing, because we do feel like we’re a work in progress.”
Another 180 degrees
Another team that got off to a slow start but turned it around with a great weekend is Maine. Expectations for the Black Bears were far more modest than those for Lowell, but not among some of the team’s fandom. (One wrote to me before the season started that he expected Maine to make the NCAA tournament.)
So after getting swept by St. Lawrence and squeaking past Bentley, the Black Bears’ two-game set against Massachusetts loomed reasonably large as October contests go. Maine answered the challenge with a 3-2 overtime win on Friday night and an 8-4 shellacking on Saturday, keyed by a six-goal, second-period outburst.
“We’re a program that has had difficulty scoring so to get six goals in a period certainly isn’t anything anyone would have predicted,” Maine coach Red Gendron says. “It’s really important for the confidence of our players. They read the newspapers, too, and they can read the stats page. They know that we’ve struggled.
“I mean, we had five goals in three games going into the weekend. So that’s great for their confidence and confidence is a big part of success in any sport.”
That’s particularly true for freshmen, so it’s especially encouraging for the Black Bears to see three of them — Blaine Byron, Cam Brown and Josh Henke — ranked among the team’s top four scorers.
“They’ve been forced to play right away and play a lot right away in a lot of situations,” Gendron says. “They get out there on power plays, so they have opportunities to do things. But at the end of the day, they’ve done it, they’ve contributed. Kudos to them.
“But there’s an awful lot of work that needs to be done. I see the positives of the weekend, but I know full well that we have not arrived.”
The Black Bears now prepare for two games against … the same UMass Minutemen they just finished playing. And these two upcoming contests, both at the Mullins Center in Amherst, count in the standings, unlike the two wins already in the books.
(With the scheduling switch from three league games against every other Hockey East team to two, prompted by the addition of Notre Dame this year and Connecticut next, many league teams have chosen to fill out their nonconference schedule with league teams, at least while that transition continues. Maine’s geography dictates that many two-game sets are either both at home or both on the road. This year’s league games against UMass will be on the road; next year’s will be at home.)
So will it be tougher to face the Minutemen coming off two wins against them?
“It has a different set of challenges, that’s all,” Gendron says. “I don’t think they’re harder or easier. The other team is going to do everything they can to play better, and we better make damned sure that we’re diligent in our preparations because if we don’t, they’ll punch us in the nose at Amherst.
“Every game is important and success one day doesn’t by itself ensure success the next. We know that and we’re approaching it accordingly.”
As for how Gendron views the first steps to his molding the program to match his vision, he makes it clear that there are no “my guys” vs. “the guys I inherited.”
“They’re all my kids now, they’re our kids,” he says. “They play for the University of Maine. All we want them to do is to work to get better individually and for our team to get better each day collectively.
“That’s what we worry about and that’s what we stress daily. Come March, we’ll see where we’re at. We’re either going to be good or we’re going to be so-so or we’re going to be not good, but we’re going to try to get better every day until it’s over.”
What a difference a year makes.
Last season, Providence came within a game of winning the Hockey East regular season title and within a game of advancing to the league tournament championship game. But as detailed two weeks ago in this space, the Friars fell short of an NCAA bid largely due to a subpar record in nonconference games.
Minnesota State and Miami inflicted the key wounds. Providence took three of the four games into overtime, but emerged with only one tie.
This year, it’s been role-reversal time. Playing both series at home, the Friars swept Minnesota State to open the season, 5-1 and 3-0. Last weekend, they hosted the third-ranked RedHawks and though both games went into OT, this time the Friars claimed a win and a tie.
I was bullish on Providence during the preseason but had trouble seeing whom they could hurdle in the standings. Now, however, the third-ranked Friars are making the case for restating that question: How are teams going to hurdle them?
• What surprise team is tied for the lead in Hockey East scoring? The Northeastern Huskies, that’s who. They share the scoring lead with Providence, averaging 5.00 goals per game.
Maybe you share some of my Hockey East snobbery so you hadn’t bought into the Huskies based on their sweeps of Alabama-Huntsville and Holy Cross. Fair enough. But even though they got only a split at St. Lawrence last week, they showed that they can score in bundles, winning 6-3 before losing 6-4.
• Congratulations to Providence for its first sellout of the newly renovated Schneider Arena last Friday. I look forward to seeing the results of all of last year’s construction.
• Who would have thought you’d see Boston College 10th in the league in team defense? Yes, 10th!. Obviously, the season is early and the opponents have been tough, but after giving up nine goals in their two-game set at Minnesota, the Eagles have averaged 3.20 goals against per game.
And finally, not that it has anything to do with anything but …
• My niece, Cherie Hendrickson, and her friend, Kelley Steadman, are playing professional hockey in Russia and are blogging about their experiences. You might enjoy reading that blog.
• A lot of Red Sox fans are acting like it’s a done deal that we’re going to win the World Series. I’m not counting any chickens until that championship gets hatched. GO SOX!