By Mike McMahon
---- — LOWELL – UMass Lowell has already ripped the pole from everyone else in Hockey East as the new flag bearer for Hockey East after unseating perennial powers Boston College, Boston University and New Hampshire by winning the league’s regular season and tournament championships.
Last weekend, the River Hawks sent another longstanding power, Wisconsin, home for the season and then ended the Wildcats’ year in Manchester, advancing to this week’s Frozen Four in Pittsburgh.
There, the River Hawks hope they can usher in a new era nationally. St. Cloud State, Yale and Quinnipiac will join the River Hawks in Pittsburgh, guaranteeing there will be a first-time national champion on Saturday night.
“It’s certainly exciting for our program,” said second-year head coach Norm Bazin, who played for the River Hawks from 1990 to 1994. “This is a vastly different school than when I went here. I mean, we’re talking 20 years ago. The progress on campus has been outstanding and you have to start there, quite frankly, because we’re well supported.”
Support isn’t something Lowell’s program has always had and success, at least in the last decade, is relatively new as well.
In 2007, there was speculation that the program may have been eliminated altogether due to concerns from Board of Trustees Chair Stephen Tocco. As a matter of fact, that was the second time there was a groundswell among people in charge to potentially rid the university of its hockey program while plans were in place to emphasize the Amherst campus as the “premiere” of the university’s structure.
This was also at a time that the university did not own the Tsongas Center. They were simply a tenant to the city of Lowell and at times had to play second fiddle to a series of fledgling American Hockey League franchises.
The appointment of Marty Meehan as chancellor changed the entire landscape.
Meehan has not only helped hockey thrive, but spurred a move to Division 1 and America East for all of its sports next season.
“There were times that this program hasn’t gotten the support it deserved,” Meehan said.
Meehan and Bazin are a match made in heaven for Lowell fans. A head coach who has reached the NCAA tournament in both of his first two seasons along with a leader at the top who understands the value athletics can have on a campus.
This week, based on previous-year estimates, UMass Lowell’s hockey team has the potential, should it reach the title game, to be seen by well more than 1.5 million viewers on ESPN2 and ESPN, which holds the tournament’s television rights.
The chancellor added, regarding Bazin’s interview in 2011, “As soon as he left my office I turned to (athletic director) Dana Skinner and said ‘he’s our head coach.’”
Frankly, Lowell has reached heights not even the most tried-and-true fans could have imagined.
“As for being the flag bearer for the league, it’s such a good conference that it prepares you well for outside competition,” Bazin said.
For Bazin, he knew this day could come. At his introductory press conference, just under two years ago, he said he wanted to “compete for national championships.”
I’m not sure even he believed the chance would come so soon.
“I guess I didn’t give it a timetable,” he said. “Who would have guessed we have a freshman goalie (Connor Hellebuyck) come out and beat your finalist for Player of the Year the year before? That’s what’s interesting about hockey.
“Things can happen quickly and I’m proud of these guys. They were open to change and certainly our coaching staff came in and made a number of changes. I’m excited for their progress, and more importantly, for the opportunity we have this weekend.”
Lowell’s success starts from the net out, where Hellebuyck has been outstanding as a rookie, posting a 20-2 record with a remarkable 1.31 goals-against average and .953 save percentage.
After starting the season 4-7-1 which stretched into early December, the River Hawks have lost just three games since (24-3-1).
”I’ve never seen a team buy into their system they way they do,” Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy said earlier this season. “At one point, they had six guys, including the goalie, in the crease blocking shots. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Truly, the system has been the genesis of Lowell’s success.
Suddenly, in early December, a light turned on, a switch was flipped and a streak started.
“We need to play a team game,” said senior captain Riley Wetmore. “We need to stick to what has been working all year and getting pouts out of the defensive zone and sacrifice our body. Just believing in the system and the process.”
Added Josh Holmstrom, “Everybody in our locker room has bought into our system and we know that success comes from the defensive zone first. If any given night we’re good down there, we give ourselves a chance to win at the end of the night.”
Already with plenty of hardware on display — Lowell’s regular-season and Hockey East tournament trophies sat on a table during a press conference this week — the River Hawks have a chance to add the ultimate trophy this week. All it takes is buying in twice more.
The Frozen Four Breaking down the field Schedule: Thursday's semifinals -- UMass Lowell vs. Yale, 4:30 (ESPN2); St. Cloud State vs. Quinnipiac, 8 (ESPN2); Championship game -- Saturday, 7 (ESPN2) UMASS LOWELL Record: 28-10-2 Regular Season: Finished first in Hockey East Playoffs: Won Hockey East Tournament Pairwise Rank: 3rd Key Stat: Lowell is 24-3-1 in their last 28 games YALE Record: 18-12-3 Regular Season: Finished third in the ECAC Playoffs: Lost in the ECAC semifinals Pairwise Rank: 15th Key Stat: If Michigan won the CCHA, Yale would have missed the tournament altogether QUINNIPIAC Record: 27-7-5 Regular Season: Won the ECAC Playoffs: Lost in the ECAC semifinals Pairwise Rank: 1st Key Stat: The Bobcats are 24-2-3 when scoring first in a game this season ST. CLOUD STATE Record: 23-15-1 Regular Season: Won the WCHA Playoffs: Lost in the WCHA semifinals Pairwise Rank: 13th Key Stat: The Huskies are 21-1-0 when leading after two periods