By Bill Burt
---- — From this side of the Merrimack River, there are two divergent ways of looking at what has transpired on the other side of the river.
One is angst and, what the heck, some good old-fashioned jealousy.
And the second way is, well, with pride and hope.
Merrimack College hockey coach Mark Dennehy has chosen the second way while looking on at what has transpired with his school’s Hockey East rival, UMass Lowell, this winter and, in particularly, the last few weeks.
UMass Lowell not only won the Hockey East regular season title for the first time, by winning on the final day of the season, but they capped that with a Hockey East Tournament championship, beating Boston University, 1-0, last Saturday night.
“I can’t tell you how impressed I’ve been with UMass Lowell and the job Norm Bazin has done,” said Dennehy, who led Merrimack to only its second NCAA Div. 1 tourney berth two seasons ago.
“The word that sticks out for me is ‘thorough,’ ” said Dennehy, from his office on the North Andover campus. “It wasn’t ‘thorough’ in one area. It was all areas. They were thorough in all three zones (offense, defense and goaltending), particularly on defense. They just don’t give you a lot. Their power play was strong. Their penalty kill was strong.”
UMass Lowell has one of the country’s hottest goalies in freshman Connor Hellebuyck, who basically unseated one of the best goalies in the country last year in Riverhawks junior Doug Carr. Hellebuyck went 18-2-0 as a starter, which included five shutouts.
Dennehy knows the importance of goaltending, with Joe Cannata covering the nets at Merrimack for four years and arguably one of the three best college goalies a year ago.
“As I’ve said many, many times before, it all starts at goaltender,” said Dennehy.
It could be argued that it was UMass Lowell that really put the nails in Merrimack’s hockey season. After a stretch in which Dennehy’s team went 12-2-2 and took over first place in Hockey East, it lost a heartbreaker to Boston College in overtime, 2-1, and then got trounced two days later at Boston University, 5-2.
The next game two games were with UMass Lowell. Tied 0-0 heading into the third period, the River Hawks scored two goals at 5:50 and 8:30 into the final period, eventually adding a pair of empty-netters for a 4-0 win. Then the next night, UMass Lowell won 3-1.
“The thing I took out of those games was that we played them real tough,” said Dennehy. “In fact, we beat them 1-0 (a month before the two-game series) and played them real tough. It says something about our program and our league. It’s not easy. Every weekend is a battle. And we played well against some very good teams. We understand where we are and how close we are.”
Bazin was recently named Hockey East Coach of the Year for the second straight season, a first in league history. Dennehy agreed with the consensus on Bazin’s honor.
“I respect the heck out of Norm and his coaching ability,” said Dennehy. “There’s a number of things I respect about him, but what really strikes me is his sense of calm about him on the bench. If you watch him, you can’t tell if his team is winning or losing. His staff is like that, too. They are not very animated on the bench. And that’s the way Lowell plays. They don’t get too high or too low. They have been impressive from the beginning of the season until the end.”
Dennehy said he is rooting for Hockey East in the NCAAs and he doesn’t see why UMass Lowell couldn’t put it all together and win a national championship. The River Hawks are currently ranked third in the nation and are a No. 1 seed in the Northeast Regional with UNH, Wisconsin and Denver.
“One thing about the NCAA tournament is that the lack of familiarity teams have with others,” said Dennehy. “If you are unfamiliar with Lowell, if you’re not prepared for them, you’re going to struggle. What they do in their defensive zone is tough to figure out. Could Lowell win a national title? Absolutely.”