March 22, 2013

Fighting spirit moves Lowell to brink of Hockey East title

By Andy Merritt

River Hawks goalie Connor Hellebuyck stopped all 18 shots he faced in the third period against Providence. (Dave Arnold Photography)

BOSTON – UMass-Lowell started the 2012-13 season 4-7-1, and after those first 12 games, the River Hawks were in ninth place in Hockey East – outside the playoff bubble.

Quite a bit has changed since then.

The River Hawks went on an 11-game unbeaten streak following their Dec. 1 loss to New Hampshire, and put together another seven-game streak that had them chasing first place as the year came to a close.

Their loss to Providence on March 8 is their only defeat in almost two months, and the most recent win – Friday’s 2-1 victory over the Friars in the Hockey East semifinals – required the same kind of fighting spirit they’d shown in pulling themselves out of the Hockey East cellar to win the program’s first regular-season league title.

“No doubt these kids have had to build up their resiliency to setbacks,” said UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin, who has overseen a transformation of the program from also-ran to title contender and back-to-back NCAA tournament participant.

Lowell allowed the game’s first goal, to fourth-line freshman Kevin Rooney nine minutes into the game. That put the River Hawks in a 1-0 hole after the first period, but the resiliency showed up in the final 40 minutes. UML was 6-4-0 when trailing after the first period heading into Friday night’s game, and they made it 7-4-0 thanks to goals from A.J. White – just his second of the year – and Scott Wilson, who buried the game-winner on an off-balance one-timer from a Riley Wetmore feed.

“All year long, we’ve been coming back in games,” said Wilson, whose team has now won three straight when trailing after the first period. “But it’s over now, we’ve got to move on to the next game.”

Before they do, the River Hawks can be forgiven for enjoying their second trip to the Hockey East final in five years. They got there with a balanced effort that included Connor Hellebuyck’s 34 saves. Hellebuyck outdid his fellow freshman standout, Providence’s Jon Gillies, who was basically impermeable through the first two periods.

It’s also an attitude thing, and the River Hawks have proven they’re not the type of team to let a one-goal deficit get them down.

“They got the first one, but [captain Riley Wetmore] and the coaches have done a great job of keeping us positive on the bench,” Wilson said.

“It’s a good hockey team, they persevere,” Bazin said. “I like their no-quit attitude, it’s been there all year.”

Bazin saw what he needed from his team when White scored just 34 seconds into the third period to tie the game.

“I knew right then and there that we’d have a good opportunity to win the game, as soon as we scored that goal. It was great to see.”

The coach also noted that every team in Hockey East goes through quite the gauntlet during the regular season.

“This league is ruthless,” he said.

Hockey East’s ruthlessness has forged UMass-Lowell into the kind of team that can absorb an early setback and counterpunch with the best of them, which bodes well for a team playing for its first league title Saturday, and beyond into the NCAA tournament starting next week.

“Somebody’s got to win the trophy,” Bazin said. “Why not us?”

Andy Merritt can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @a_merritt.