Hockey 101: UMass Lowell rising in Hockey East

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UMass Lowell is hardly a perennial favorite in Hockey East.

In 2006 and 2007, the league’s 10 coaches picked the River Hawks to finish ninth, and last season they were slotted seventh in the preseason rankings. But owing to the team’s meteoric rise in the second half of last season, during which it went 12-5-2 in its last 19 games, it has been picked finish second in college hockey’s most cutthroat conference.

“We don’t want to put ourselves on a pedestal or anything like that,” says goaltender Carter Hutton after Lowell’s 3-0 exhibition win against Acadia two weeks ago. “I remember when I was a freshman here and losing 20 games. Being one of the favorites is a little different.”

A little, yeah. This is a team that was picked in the nation’s top 15 by pretty much every college hockey publication and is widely expected to make its first NCAA appearance since 1996, but prior to last year’s 20-16-2 campaign (20 wins being the generally-accepted hallmark that your team had a strong season), hadn’t finished above .500 since 2004-05.

They’ve grown accustomed to defying expectations. Living up to them is a different matter entirely. Most Hockey East teams lost a lot of offense and defense to graduation and the pros (five players went straight from Hockey East to the NHL this offseason), but Lowell returns all but three seniors.

“We still need guys to make jumps,” warns coach Blaise MacDonald. “It just doesn’t happen through the evolution of time, it’s through hard work and getting after it. I think we’ve got a lot of guys (that can do that). I’m very interested to see it. You don’t want guys going backwards, that’s for sure. Other teams have some talented freshmen coming in, but our experience makes us feel very strongly about our game.”

That experience includes sweeping then-No. 7 Vermont on the road in the Hockey East quarterfinals before knocking off then-No. 5 Northeastern in overtime and controversially falling 1-0 (“Yeah, it was 1-1,” says MacDonald, half-joking. I think.) to then-No. 2 and eventual national champion Boston University. They were one win away from mathematically qualifying for an at-large NCAA bid as a consequence of dropping a number of close decisions.

“We look at a loss to Colgate or a loss to Michigan State and we lost six in a row at one point and everyone was counting us out, but now we realize how important (every game) is,” says Hutton. “Colgate, Michigan State, Minnesota-Duluth, Union. I know about the 2-1 losses. A loss is a loss, but those are tough. That’s something where we need to have our power play or our penalty kill be good all season.”

They’ve certainly got the horses, because this is one of those win-together, lose-together teams, and the River Hawks know won’t out-talent any of the top sides in the league. Their games are decided along the boards and in the corners and they happily bring their hardhats to the rink every night. It won’t be as pretty as most BU games, but they hope it will be effective.

UMass Lowell got off to a tough start in the IceBreaker tournament last weekend, shutting out St. Lawrence 3-0 but blowing an early two-goal lead to Nebraska-Omaha and losing 4-3 thanks to some curious defensive lapses.

“We need to get the puck in the offensive zone, do a better job of possessing the puck down low and once you get it there, keep it there,” says MacDonald. “That’s by working the cycle, using the point. It’s getting out of your own zone cleanly, getting it deep and keeping it there and not just throwing it away. We want to force opponents to make good plays through the middle of the rink if they want to beat us.”

And Lowell is so good at what it does that even the best teams probably won’t be able to do that most nights.

“We played like a team on a mission in the second half,” says Hutton. “Now we have to be a team on a mission the whole year.”

Because of their impressive ability to work within a system, they have the ability to do it. The difference between now and a year ago is that they have to do it with a target on their backs.

Extra credit

Well done to the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers, who despite being told by the CCHA they weren’t good enough to compete in their league (in so many words), went up to South Bend and beat No. 5 Notre Dame 3-2 on Friday. Sure, they lost the next night, but splitting with one of the best teams in the conference is a pretty nice accomplishment and shows they deserve a second chance from someone else.

I’m personally very excited for the new feature Hockey East is rolling out for tonight’s games: a mobile website with live stats and box scores. Their old website was fairly bad for this sort of thing, so this is a much-needed and welcome improvement.

Denver got off to a poor start for a No. 1 team, splitting with No. 14 Vermont at home and conceding 10 goals doing it.

Ryan Lambert and writes about college hockey weekly here at Puck Daddy. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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