May 8, 2013

From NEHJ: UMass-Lowell buys in to win

By Andrew Merritt

UMass-Lowell freshman Connor Hellebuyck posted a 1.30 goals-against average and .955 save percentage in a scintillating 14-2-0 stretch. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

There was a time, not that long ago, when it seemed not just possible but probable that the UMass-Lowell hockey program would cease to exist.

Just six years later, UMass-Lowell has one of the best hockey programs in the country.

Of course, that was little consolation to the River Hawks on April 11. Their loss to Yale in the Frozen Four ended a dream season in which they won the program’s first-ever Hockey East regular-season and tournament titles and went all the way to the national semifinals, also a program first.

The 4-2 loss to the eventual national champion Bulldogs ended Lowell’s season at 28-11-2, the second-highest win total in the country behind Quinnipiac. They lost only two of their final 16 games, which followed an 11-game unbeaten streak in the middle of the season that brought them not only into playoff contention in Hockey East but eventually into first place.

“I felt like there was a stronger buy-in,” said coach Norm Bazin, who in two seasons at Lowell has already collected 54 wins. “Sometimes you have to fail to really have a great learning lesson. We got off to a slow start. We struggled, and we dug ourselves out of a hole. A good part of that was buy-in.”

On Dec. 1, the River Hawks lost a 5-2 game to New Hampshire, knocking them down to 4-7-1, with a 2-6-1 record in Hockey East that had them sitting in ninth place in the league. A week later, they beat Northeastern, 2-0. They didn’t lose again for nearly two months.

“I felt like we had the guys’ attention at that point, and they bought in and they turned it around,” said Bazin on the eve of the Frozen Four. “Thankfully, we had a great second-half stretch that kind of led us to where we are now.”

The rumbling UML train came to a sudden halt in Pittsburgh, but one loss to the Bulldogs doesn’t negate one of the greatest years in the program’s history — perhaps the greatest.

The second-half surge largely coincided with the emergence of freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. The rookie from Commerce, Mich., split time with sophomore Doug Carr (Hanover, Mass.) for part of the first half of the season, then suffered an injury and illness in January. When he returned Feb. 15, he submitted one of the most impressive rookie performances in recent memory, going 14-2-0 as Lowell’s newfound No. 1 netminder and posting a 1.30 goals-against average and .955 save percentage over that stretch.

A lanky 6-foot-4, 200-pound 19-year-old, Hellebuyck swiped the top job from Carr, who was impressive in his own debut season last year. While Hellebuyck’s résumé isn’t quite as complete as that of fellow freshman Jon Gillies (South Portland, Maine) at Providence, his second half gives Lowell reason to think it has its goaltender of the future right now.

“He’s a terrific freshman,” Bazin said after the final game of the season. “He’s been strong the whole second half. I think he’s improved this year, and it will take some time to put this behind us. … Connor, as well as the rest of their group, I’m very proud of. He’s got a good future ahead of him, and I’m thankful that he’s a freshman.”

Six years ago, the future was bleak for UMass-Lowell. In 2013, UMass-Lowell is the future of Hockey East.

2012-13 Team Recaps

Boston College (22-12-4, 15-9-3 Hockey East)

The Good: The Eagles were part of a historic season, as coach Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.) eclipsed Ron Mason to become the all-time winningest college hockey coach. The record-beating victory came in, of all places, Minneapolis, against, of all teams, Alabama-Huntsville, but the Eagles didn’t stop there, and York finished the year with 935 victories. Johnny Gaudreau improved on his stellar debut season, scoring 21 goals and 30 assists despite playing nine fewer games as a sophomore than he did as a freshman. Steven Whitney (Reading, Mass.) was a force all year, leading even when Gaudreau was away on World Juniors duty, and finishing with 26-19-45 totals. Gaudreau, Whitney and senior Pat Mullane (Wallingford, Conn.) were the three top scorers in the league.

The Bad: The injury bug bit BC hard this season, knocking out defenseman Patch Alber for 20 games in the middle of the season and ending forward Kevin Hayes’ (Dorchester, Mass.) year eight games early (after he’d already missed three contests). The Eagles won just two of their seven games in January, and after starting the year with 10 victories in their first 11 games, they ended up losing to BU in the Hockey East semifinals and Union in the NCAA first round. Although the offense was potent, leading the league with 3.37 goals scored per game, the defense was only sixth best in Hockey East, allowing an average of 2.82 goals per game.

The Future: The Eagles lose two of their top scorers in Whitney and Mullane, who combined for 88 points — more than 25 percent of the scoring — as well as defensemen Alber and Patrick Wey to graduation. That puts the offensive emphasis even more on Gaudreau next year, as well as Needham, Mass., native Bill Arnold, while defensemen Michael Matheson and Teddy Doherty (Hopkinton, Mass.) will be asked to do even more as sophomores. In goal, Parker Milner graduates this spring, which means incoming freshman Thatcher Demko from the U.S. National Team Development Program will probably see significant minutes early.

 

Boston University (21-16-2, 15-10-2 Hockey East) 

The Good: The youth movement was strong at BU this year, with freshman Danny O’Regan (Needham, Mass.) leading the Terriers in scoring with 16-22-38 totals. In fact, all of the top four scorers and nine of the top 10 were underclassmen. In goal, freshmen Sean Maguire and Matt O’Connor traded time for much of the season, and both played well — particularly Maguire, who took over as the No. 1 when O’Connor suffered a collapsed lung late in the year. The BU offense was third-best in Hockey East, just a few paces behind BC and UNH.

The Bad: O’Connor’s scary injury put a damper on his debut season, and he didn’t see the ice at all after February. The Terriers were inconsistent throughout the year, going all the way into March without a winning streak of more than two games before they swept Merrimack and beat BC to reach the Hockey East title game, where they lost to first-time champion Lowell. The Beanpot was a bit of a nadir for BU, which lost to Northeastern in the first round and took an ugly 7-4 beating from Harvard in the consolation game — two games that effectively killed BU’s chances of earning an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament.

The Future: Junior Matt Nieto, who was second in scoring with 18 goals and 19 assists, signed out early to join the San Jose organization, leaving an offensive and leadership void in his wake. BU also loses hard-working captain Wade Megan to graduation, as well as forward Ryan Santana, and defensemen Sean Escobedo, Ryan Ruikka, Jake Moscatel and Patrick MacGregor, plus swingman Ben Rosen. That’ll be a hefty group to replace on defense, where the only returning starters are Bruins prospect Matt Grzelcyk (Charlestown, Mass.), Garrett Noonan (Norfolk, Mass.) and Alexx Privitera, who was suspended for the last month of the season. Of course, the biggest loss comes behind the bench, where coach Jack Parker (Somerville, Mass.) will no longer patrol after announcing his retirement in March. For the first time in 40 years, the Terriers will have a new coach, and that coach is David Quinn (Cranston, R.I.), a former Parker assistant and player. BU’s top incoming recruit is Doyle Somerby, a defenseman from Marblehead, Mass., who’ll get his chance to contribute early on a depleted blue line.

 

Maine (11-19-8, 7-12-8 Hockey East)

The Good: The Black Bears got one of their best goaltending performances in recent memory from junior Martin Ouellette, who quickly took over from Dan Sullivan as the No. 1, and posted a 2.42 GAA and .917 save percentage — the best numbers by a full-time Maine goaltender since Ben Bishop in 2007-08. Rookie Devin Shore also emerged as a playmaker, picking up six goals and 20 assist to lead the Black Bears in points. While Maine got off to a rough start, the Black Bears proved to be a pretty tough out down the stretch, going 6-3-4 over their final 13 regular season games.

The Bad: Maine went 11-19-8 (7-12-8 in Hockey East), posting its first losing season since 2008-09, after a horrendous 5-14-4 start including just one win over the first 10 games of the year. That ultimately signaled the end of the Tim Whitehead era in Orono, as the school bought out the final year of the coach’s contract, ending at 12 years the tenure of only the second full-time Maine coach since Hockey East’s beginning in 1984. Senior captain Joey Diamond’s 14 goals were a team high, and Diamond was the only Maine player with more than seven goals all year.

The Future: With Whitehead out, the future is murky at best for Maine, which quickly named Bob Corkum the interim head coach as it searches for a full-time replacement. What that does as far as recruiting has yet to be seen, but regardless, the Black Bears need some help. Other than goal, every position is in need of improvement, and the graduation of Diamond, key defenseman Mike Cornell (Franklin, Mass.), forward Kyle Beattie and defensemen Mark Nemec and Nick Pryor won’t make that any easier. The top returning goal scorer is Ryan Lomberg, who had seven goals and seven assists as a freshman.

 

UMass (12-19-3, 9-16-2 Hockey East)

The Good: Junior Branden Gracel had a breakout year for the Minutemen, scoring 14 goals and 20 assists to finish tied for 11th on the league high scorers list with 34 points. Gracel’s junior classmates Conor Sheary (11-16-27, Melrose, Mass.) and Michael Pereira (13-13-26, West Haven, Conn.) also had a big hand in the scoring for UMass. The Minutemen had the league’s third-best power play, converting on 18.5 percent of their chances, and they managed to pull off some impressive wins, including a pair of victories over Boston College — one when the Eagles were No. 1 in the country, and one when they were No. 2.

The Bad: UMass missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002, under first-year head coach John Micheletto. They were in decent shape when January came to a close, but lost seven of their final 10 games. Sophomores Kevin Boyle and Steve Mastalerz (North Andover, Mass.) split the goaltending time, with Mastalerz picking up most of the starts in the latter half of the year, but neither was particularly strong, though Boyle had a shutout of Providence on Nov. 9 and Mastalerz blanked Merrimack in the final game of the season. Meanwhile, the offense was sixth in the league, scoring 2.74 goals per game.

The Future: There’s basically no place for UMass to go but up, and as Micheletto — a talented recruiter as an assistant in Vermont — starts to bring his own players in, the Minutemen should start to improve. They lose four seniors from this year’s team — forwards Rocco Carzo, Kevin Czepiel (Holyoke, Mass.) and Eddie Olczyk, and defenseman Darren Rowe — so there won’t be a lot of new blood next season, and ostensibly one of the goaltenders will have to take charge and shore up the Minutemen’s defense, which was third-worst in the league.

 

UMass-Lowell (28-11-2, 16-9-2 Hockey East)

The Good: The River Hawks were one of the most impressive teams in the country — particularly in the second half, when they went 14-2-0 en route to the program’s first-ever Hockey East titles and Frozen Four berth. Junior Doug Carr (Hanover, Mass.) gave way to freshman Connor Hellebuyck in net, and the rookie hardly looked back. His 1.37 GAA and .952 not only led the league, they led the nation. Up front, sophomore Scott Wilson and junior Joseph Pendenza (Wilmington, Mass.) shared the team scoring lead, with their 38 points each tying them for fifth in the league.

The Bad: The offense averaged an even three goals per game, which was fourth best in Hockey East and 21st in the nation. In the Frozen Four, all the momentum UML had built over the second half of the season disappeared, as the River Hawks took just 16 shots in a 3-2 overtime loss to Yale to end their season.

The Future: The River Hawks lose one of their defensive keys in Chad Ruhwedel, who opted out of his senior year in favor of signing with Buffalo. Otherwise, Lowell graduates only three seniors — captain Riley Wetmore, defenseman Colin Wright and forward Malcolm Lyles. As long as Wilson doesn’t opt for an early departure to the pro ranks, the River Hawks will have four of their top five scorers back next year.

 

Merrimack (15-17-6, 13-11-3 Hockey East)

The Good: The Warriors were perfectly average this year, though junior forward Mike Collins (Boston, Mass.) stood out, at one point leading the race for the league scoring title. Defenseman Jordan Heywood continued to shine, and his eight goals and 13 assists certainly don’t tell the full story of how important the veteran blueliner is to Merrimack. In goal, junior Sam Marotta (Bridgewater, Mass.) posted a strong 2.28 GAA and .925 save percentage, playing the bulk of the minutes and getting capable backup from sophomore Rasmus Tirronen.

The Bad: The Warriors’ defense-first mentality didn’t pay off as much as they’d have liked. The 2.58 goals they allowed per game was fourth best in the league, offset by Hockey East’s fourth-worst offense, which scored just 2.39 goals per game. Collins (17-21-38) was the only Warrior to reach double-digit goals, and no other player had more than eight. Merrimack was shut out three times, and all three came in the final weeks of the year, including the season finale against UMass and the playoff opener against BU.

The Future: Merrimack will miss the imposing presence of graduating defenseman Kyle Bigos, but otherwise only lose forwards John Heffernan (4-7-11) and Brandon Brodhag (0-1-1) to graduation. Forwards Shawn Bates, Connor Toomey and Rhett Bly will need to find the net a little more regularly.

 

New Hampshire (20-12-7, 13-8-6 Hockey East) 

The Good: UNH had the second-best offense (3.13 GPG) and defense (2.31 GAPG) in the league, providing yet another solid, 20-win year. Junior Kevin Goumas’ 10-32-42 totals put him fourth on the league scoring chart — first among non-Boston College players — and sophomore Casey DeSmith (Rochester, N.H.) built on his big debut with a 2.23 GAA (third best in the conference) and .924 save percentage (fifth). UNH had three players — Goumas, sophomore defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and sophomore forward Grayson Downing — with 30 or more points.

The Bad: The Wildcats hit a cold snap late in the year, winning only two of their final seven games. That included a 2-1 series loss to Providence in the Hockey East quarterfinals and a loss to UMass-Lowell in the NCAA Northeast Regional final. And while UNH compiled another 20-win season, only 13 of those victories came in Hockey East, where they finished outside the home-ice bubble for the quarterfinals after losing out on the tiebreaker with Providence.

The Future: UNH loses six seniors to graduation this spring, but only Austin Block and John Henrion had 20 or more points, so the bulk of the scoring will return in the fall. Even more importantly, DeSmith will be a junior with a full year as the No. 1 netminder under his belt, and with van Riemsdyk returning in front of him, the Wildcats defense projects to be a tough group to beat once again.

 

Northeastern (9-21-4, 5-18-4 Hockey East)

The Good: Freshman Kevin Roy proved to be one of the most explosive players in Hockey East, scoring 17 goals and 17 assists to finish 11th on the scoring charts, and eclipsed only by BU’s Danny O’Regan on the freshman list. The Huskies also got a good final year from senior transfer Vinny Saponari (7-22-29), and junior Cody Ferriero (Essex, Mass.) provided some highlights, including the four-goal game at Harvard on  Dec. 29.

The Bad: The Huskies missed the Hockey East playoffs for the second time in as many years, meaning they’ve yet to qualify under coach Jim Madigan (Milton, Mass.). While they were in it until the final weekend in a super-tight playoff race, they ended up finishing in last place. The NU defense was also the worst in the league, allowing an average of 3.47 goals per game — 0.4 goals worse than the next worst defense, Vermont. Offensively, only Roy and Ferriero had double-digit goals, and Saponari was the only Husky with more than 17 points.

The Future: There will be serious changes ahead, as Saponari and linemate Garrett Vermeersch are both gone to graduation, as are goaltenders Chris Rawlings and Bryan Mountain, forwards Robbie Vrolyk and Steve Morra, and defenseman Drew Ellement. Goaltending is the biggest question for the Huskies going, and Roy will need help up front as defenses adjust to his game.

 

Providence (17-14-7, 13-8-6 Hockey East) 

The Good: The Friars were part of a wild race for the Hockey East title and had a chance to win it right up until the penultimate game of the year. In their second year under coach Nate Leaman, they overcame a 7-8-3 start to finish fourth, earning home ice in the league quarterfinals for the first time since 2001. Freshman goaltender Jon Gillies (South Portland, Maine) was one of the best players in the league all year, posting a 2.08 GAA and .931 save percentage — both of which were bested only by Lowell’s Hellebuyck. Up front, a balanced offense was led by Ross Mauermann’s 12 goals and 12 assists, with junior Derek Army (East Providence, R.I.) and senior Tim Schaller (Merrimack, N.H.) each just one point behind their sophomore teammate.

The Bad: That rough start to the year put the Friars in a bit of a hole, and they had to win five of their last eight games to stay in the league’s top four. It also killed their at-large hopes for the NCAA tournament, so the loss to UMass-Lowell in the Hockey East semifinals ended their season. Gillies lost some steam in the second half of the year, and that plus the three games he missed for World Juniors duty (two Providence losses and one tie) were evidence that he probably could have used a backup to give him some relief.

The Future: With Gillies in net it’s hard to imagine a huge dropoff for the Friars, but they will lose forwards Schaller, Chris Rooney (Canton, Mass.) and Kyle Murphy to graduation, as well as defensemen Alex Velischek and Myles Harvey. That puts some of the spotlight on freshmen Nick Saracino and Mark Jankowski to make a leap in their sophomore seasons, though both showed the capability of doing just that late in the year.

 

Vermont (11-19-6, 8-13-6 Hockey East) 

The Good: The Catamounts defined “scrappy” in 2012-13, somehow qualifying for the Hockey East playoffs despite having the league’s second-worst offense (2.28 GPG) and defense (3.06 GAPG). A lot of that is due to freshman goaltender Brody Hoffman, who may not have quite matched the debuts of Gillies in Providence or Hellebuyck in Lowell, but who put together a strong first season of his own. His numbers didn’t astound, but his ability to play almost every minute available to him gave UVM some stability in net. Up front, junior Chris McCarthy led with 13 goals and 18 assists, his 31 points good for 16th in the league.

The Bad: The Catamounts didn’t have much else offensively after McCarthy. No other player had more than nine goals, and only Jacob Fallon and Kyle Reynolds had 20 or more points. While Hoffman showed promise, the Vermont defense was quite porous throughout the year, which combined with a low-wattage offense to produce a lot of long nights for coach Kevin Sneddon and company. The Catamounts won back-to-back games only three times this season and slogged through a five-game losing streak in January.

The Future: Hoffman showed some real promise, which is good, because UVM will lean on him to be the No. 1 next year as well. The Catamounts will lose five players to graduation, though other than Brett Bruneteau (6-7-13), none of them had double-digit points this year, so the impact is minimal. But that means a need for a big senior year from McCarthy, and some leaps to be taken by the likes of Fallon and Reynolds.

Twitter: @A_Merritt

Email: amerritt@hockeyjournal.com