In the early 20th century, legendary author Mark Twain once said, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Now more than 100 years later, we might be able to use a similar quote to sum up the first month of UMass Lowell’s hockey season.
The River Hawks began the season ranked fifth in the USCHO.com poll, but lost both games to New Hampshire in its opening weekend. A week later, the River Hawks fell behind 4-0 to Omaha at home and lost 5-2, falling to 0-3 on the season.
But after beating the Mavericks the second night of that weekend and then successfully making the difficult trek to the North Country to beat both Clarkson and St. Lawrence, the cloud of concern that sat over River Hawks nation less than 10 days earlier has lifted.
“I think we’re a work in progress,” said coach Norm Bazin. “Several things are improving and we’re slowly finding out what we’re capable of.
“We keep focusing on our habits, because I thought that those lacked greatly in our early-season action. We played an exhibition game and I didn’t think they were very good there, but that was the first day we could be on the ice with a coach. We’ve been getting a little bit better each week.”
That doesn’t mean that everything is all roses for the River Hawks. Bazin, who has led his team to five straight Hockey East title games, understands this is all a process that builds towards the postseason as the weeks go by.
“We’re reminded as to how hard it is to have a chance to have some success,” said Bazin, “let alone be guaranteed anything.”
One major change from games 1-3, all losses, to games 4-6, all wins, comes in goal. Last year’s rookie standout Tyler Wall started the three losses. In game 4, Bazin decided to give Christoffer Hernberg an opportunity. The junior had made just two other starts in his career. As a freshman, he started against and beat Arizona State, allowing a single goal. In his sophomore campaign, Hernberg earned a tie at Minnesota Duluth in the opening weekend of the season.
Each of those seasons, though, there was a dominant starter.
Two years ago, it was Kevin Boyle, who started 39 of 40 games with a 24-10-5 mark. Last year, it was Wall who emerged among a quartet of goaltenders as the No. 1, with a 26-10-1 record.
But Bazin said he felt Hernberg deserved the opportunity, noting that he returned for his junior season ready.
“His fitness level is better than it ever has been,” said Bazin. “He’s someone who can appreciate and value his opportunity, because he’s been sitting there waiting for it for a while.”
If this was an NHL team, you might hear media buzzing about a goaltending controversy. You have a proven commodity in Wall, while Hernberg now is emerging as a valuable talent.
But Bazin looks at it as a very good problem to have.
“I think we have two, maybe three goalies, who can play in a game,” said Bazin, alluding to junior Sean Cleary as another strong option. “That’s a luxury. When you have two [goaltenders], you’re doing good.”
The situation of having multiple goaltenders is somewhat unfamiliar to Lowell. For the most part, the River Hawks have had a clear-cut No. 1 ‘tender. The last time there was any significant amount of shared time was 2013-14, when Connor Hellebuyck was the team’s No. 1 goaltender, but still sat 12 games while senior Doug Carr played. Both goaltenders finished the season with GAAs of 1.80 or better.
But Bazin is also aware that having multiple options helps keep all of his goaltenders motivated and increases competition not just in games, but in practice, too.
“It gives you piece of mind that if something happens injury-wise, you can go to the other person,” said Bazin. “And it’s not out of the realm of possibility now that I can split guys in a given weekend. You go with people who deserve the opportunity and Chris has earned it.
“Taking nothing away from Tyler [Wall], he had a great season last season. But that was last season. He’s going to have to work for his next start. I love the competition in practice. I think that’s part of our culture.”
A look inside the numbers from last weekend’s OOC play
I sounded the alarm in Monday’s Hockey East blog that last weekend should raise red flags in terms of the league’s lack of success in out-of-conference play.
Let’s look a little deeper into the numbers.
As I mentioned on Monday, Hockey East teams were a collective 5-12-1 against other conferences last weekend, lowering the overall out-of-conference mark to 20-22-4. Here is how that stacks up against the five other conferences:
NCHC: 23-12-7 (.631)
Big Ten: 18-10-3 (.629)
Hockey East: 20-22-4 (.478)
ECAC: 12-16-6 (.441)
AHC: 9-12-3 (.438)
WCHA: 10-17-4 (.387)
The conference is still third among the six, but when you look at the out-of-conference (OOC) winning percentage, Hockey East is closer to the bottom three than the top two.
To this point, Hockey East has played 41 of its total 104 non-conference games (Beanpot games against Hockey East opponents have been eliminated from that count). So there is some good news as more than half of the non-league games remain for the conference. To date, Vermont has played the most (6), while Connecticut and Maine have played the least (2).
Now if you’ve read my rants about non-conference success, you know I generally equate it to the number of teams that make the NCAA tournament from each conference. But I’ll be honest, I’ve never fact-checked myself too deeply, rather trying to use the logistics that out-of-conference play is your differentiating factor.
So I’ve gone back for the last five years and found three data points: 1) Hockey East’s winning percentage out of conference; 2) Where that placed Hockey East in terms of ranking of the other conferences and 3) How many Hockey East teams qualified for the NCAA field.
Here is what I found:
|Year||Win %||Place||NCAA Teams|
|2017||.573||3rd of 6||4|
|2016||.554||3rd of 6||6|
|2015||.599||2nd of 6||3|
|2014||.611||1st of 6||5|
|2013||.540||4th of 5||3|
Looking at that, we can say that in 2013, Hockey East struggled and only Atlantic Hockey had a worse out-of-conference record and three teams got NCAA bids. A year later, Hockey East had the best winning percentage and got five teams in the field. That shows a somewhat direct correlation to my theory.
But what about 2015? 2016? Well, in 2015, the NCHC got six of its eight teams into the tournament because of some extreme OOC success. That cannibalized a Hockey East team like. But what about 2016? Hockey East was third in winning percentage behind the NCHC and ECAC. That’s a statistical aberration, right? Well, sort of.
That season, only three conferences were above .500 out-of-conference, setting up a situation like we have this season. In 2016, the three top conferences grabbed 13 of the 16 NCAA bids, leaving single bids for the Big Ten, WCHA and Atlantic Hockey. That season, in fact, was the closest in terms of a drop off between the top OOC winning percentages and bottom OOC winning percentages as we currently have.
So what’s the point?
The current OOC winning percentages are threatening to the four conferences that are below .500 and strongly favor the top two conference – the Big Ten and NCHC. And it’s likely if any of those four lower conferences struggle with their remaining games, there is a threat that at-large bids might not exists (note: don’t look at the current PWR to extrapolate anything as six schools – the Ivies – haven’t played a single game, thus skewing the PWR).
Sure, there is a lot of time left in the season, but it would help Hockey East to win a significant number of the 73 nonconference games remaining as 5-12-1 weekends won’t cut it.