Long road stretch yields top-notch results for UMass Lowell as return to Tsongas on tap

Anthony Florentino (PC - 16), Joe Gambardella (UML - 5) (Parisi) - The University of Massachusetts Lowell River Hawks defeated the Providence College Friars 2-1 at 12:27 of the third overtime in their Hockey East semi-final meeting on Friday, March 18, 2016, at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Joe Gambardella has been a key cog in the UMass Lowell offense this season (photo: Melissa Wade).

The road can be a difficult place in sports — hockey, in particular.

Raucous fans create atmospheres that can spur on the home club, maybe even make enough noise to draw attention to something that results in a penalty.

For Massachusetts-Lowell, a six-game road swing away from the friendly confines of the Tsongas Arena, where the club currently draws the most fans per game in Hockey East, was certainly a daunting test.

It began back in December when Lowell was coming off a three-game winless skid (0-2-1). After a Friday night home win over Merrimack on Dec. 9, the River Hawks knew they wouldn’t see their fans again at the Tsongas Center until Jan. 20.

When that weekend against Merrimack began, Lowell was 8-5-3 overall. If the road wasn’t good to the River Hawks, NCAA hopes could be in peril.

Instead, the River Hawks pulled off the unimaginable, winning all six games on the trip and return home this Friday to take on Providence sporting a 15-5-3 mark, the fourth-best winning percentage in college hockey at .717.

“We are proud of our road trip,” said UML coach Norm Bazin. “We’re happy to have it in back of us.

“It’s a test of resilience. You find out who can play on the road the same as they do at home. You find out a lot about your team. We’re glad to have it behind us and we’re glad that we got favorable results.”

Because of the success, Lowell is tied with Union for the most road wins (nine). They currently own the longest unbeaten streak, eight games (7-0-1) and the longest winning streak, seven straight. Over those eight games, the numbers speak for themselves.

The River Hawks have outscored opponents, 30-13, in their last eight contests. Their power play over the eight games has clicked at 50 percent (9-for-18) while the penalty kill is clicking at 93.3 percent efficiency (28-for-30).

Seven out of those eight games, Lowell has limited opponents to two goals or less, the only exception a wild 7-4 victory over Dartmouth in the championship game of the Ledyard Bank Classic.

Also during the stretch, Lowell won one-goal games three times. The River Hawks were 0-2-3 in games decided by a goal or less before the current winning streak began.

A major component of the streak has been the performance of Lowell’s top line of Joe Gambardella, C.J. Smith and John Edwardh. In the eight game stretch, that line has scored in seven of the games and each of the trio has potted four goals.

Leading the way is Gambardella. Small in size, Garbardella is a hard-working forward who is as crafty battling for loose pucks in the corners as he is scoring goals. In the last eight games, Gambardella has led the team in scoring with 13 points and was named MVP of the Ledyard Bank Classic.

“Joe Gambardella is a poster child for Lowell hockey,” said Bazin. “He’s a workmanlike guy.”

Says Bazin, Gambardella’s 5-foot-10 frame doesn’t tell the story of how big of a player the senior forward is.

“Size is negotiable when you look at size of players,” Bazin said. “He plays more like 6-2. He might be 5-10, but he plays a lot bigger than that. Whether it’s practice or games, he brings that workmanlike effort that’s contagious throughout the whole team.

As Lowell has settled into the season, the answer to one of the biggest questions entering the season seems to be clear. The River Hawks began the year with exactly one game started between a roster of four goaltenders. Though often early games were an audition process – all four goaltenders made starts this year, the first time that has occurred in the program’s Division I history – Tyler Wall seems to have emerged as the stabilizing factor for the River Hawks in net.

That follows what has become a long tradition of goaltenders with strong statistics since Bazin has taken over the program. It began with Doug Carr, who backstopped Lowell to the biggest single season turnaround in Division I history (five wins in 2011, followed by 24 wins in 2012). Carr and Connor Hellebuyck were both a part of back-to-back Hockey East champions in 2013 and 2014. And UMass transfer Kevin Boyle carried the River Hawks to championship game appearances the last two seasons.

“[Goaltending] is a big part of any team,” said Bazin. “Cam Ellsworth, an assistant coach on staff, has done an excellent job with the goaltenders. He’s done a nice job developing Tyler Wall, who right now is leading our club. And we have two goaltenders who are feeling very good about themselves right now. Garrett Metcalf is coming on as well.

“We gave a lot of opportunities to guys in the first half and these two guys seem to be pushing the envelope here in the second half.”

Beginning Friday against Providence, six of Lowell’s final 11 league games will be at home. That’s music to the ears of Bazin, knowing the type of support his team has garnered in recent years at the Tsongas Center.

“We’re very proud of our fans,” said Bazin. “The Merrimack Valley has supported our team and the students are coming out in droves. When you get that type of support you want to put your best foot forward and the guys have done that thus far.”

Boston College and the PairWise

If anyone reads Jayson Moy’s “Bracketology” column every Wednesday, you’re probably familiar with the PairWise Rankings and how they work. I know I talk plenty about them here as well.

One thing, though, in reading Moy’s piece this week is how the PairWise relates to Boston College.

The Eagles dropped two games last week to rival Boston University. And if you read “Bracketology” you see that Moy included BC at number 14 of the 16 teams in the fictional NCAA field. But right now, the Eagles wouldn’t make the tournament as an at-large team and are only included in Moy’s Bracketology because of the fact that they lead Hockey East.

But as many of you know, the regular-season champion does not earn an automatic bid (years ago, it did). BC would have to win the Hockey East tournament title if it doesn’t qualify as an at-large team.

To say that the Eagles are firmly planted on the bubble right now is an understatement. We saw what one loss can do to a team’s NCAA hopes last weekend when Merrimack upset Notre Dame, knocking them below the “Mendoza” line of the PairWise for the first time this season.

Now all is not lost for Boston College or Notre Dame at this point. Though it goes without saying when those two teams face off at Kelley Rink on Jan. 28, there could be a lot more on the line that evening than two points in the Hockey East standings.