February 16, 2012

Hockey East Journal: UMass-Lowell's U-turn fueled by Carr

By Andrew Merritt

It’s not supposed to work like this. 

UMass-Lowell netminder Doug Carr owns the best goals-against average and save percentage in Hockey East. (Dave Arnold Photography)

You’re not supposed to go from missing the playoffs one year, to changing coaches in the offseason, to rising all the way to first place with only three weeks left the next year.

Maybe nobody explained the rules to UMass-Lowell.

The River Hawks went 5-24-4 last year, with a 4-21-2 Hockey East record that put them dead last at the end of the season. They were outscored by more than a goal-and-a-half per game, with the league’s worst defense (3.78 goals allowed per game) and second-worst offense (2.22 goals scored per game).

Coach Blaise MacDonald (Billerica, Mass.) stepped down at season’s end, and UML alum Norm Bazin was brought in, ostensibly, to start the rebuilding process just two years after the River Hawks came within a goal of winning the Hockey East title. Their 2-3-0 start this year was right in line with the expectations for a team that had so much work to do, and even after a sweep at Maine got them above .500, a loss at New Hampshire suggested it’d be a lot of one-step-forward, one-step-back this year in Lowell.

Then the River Hawks ripped off five straight wins and, since that loss to UNH on Nov. 18, they have gone 14-4-0, 11-4-0 in the league. With Friday’s 3-0 win over Merrimack, UML clinched a playoff spot and took sole possession of first place in Hockey East, 356 days after they were officially knocked out of the 2011 playoff picture. They’re also the No. 6 team in the nation, and in line to earn an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament.

Not that the River Hawks were paying too much attention to that.

“No, obviously we talked about it in the room after, but you don’t look ahead to anything, even with 20 seconds left,” said goaltender Doug Carr (Hanover, Mass.), who notched his fourth shutout of the year on 31 saves Friday. “We just stay in the moment, and that’s how we’ve been successful, just not looking ahead to anything.”

Still, Derek Arnold, who scored the River Hawks’ first two goals Friday, couldn’t resist keeping an eye on the developments at Agganis Arena, where UMass upset No. 2 Boston University to open the door for UML to walk into first place.

“I might have taken a peek up at the scoreboard once or twice,” Arnold said, with a smile of confession after the game. “When we got the empty-netter (by Riley Wetmore, shorthanded, with 1:34 to go), I felt a little better with the cushion there. But it’s pretty cool to be in first place coming from a five-win year last year, but it’s only tonight, huge game tomorrow, and hopefully we’re there at the end of the season.”

That “huge game tomorrow” turned out to be a 2-1 loss to Maine Saturday, but with second-place BU and BC taking the night off ahead of the Beanpot, the River Hawks held on to the top spot for at least the week.

Carr has been a big key to UMass-Lowell’s success, but he’s not doing it alone. A year after that woeful 2010-11 defense allowed an average of 35.2 shots per game – 7.3 more than the offense was taking –the script is flipped this year. UML is averaging 34.2 shots per game and Carr is only seeing an average of 28.3 attempts, helping him post the league’s best save percentage (.935) and goals-against average (1.81), the third- and fourth-best numbers in the nation, respectively.

“I think Doug should buy dinner for (the defense),” said Bazin, noting the number of shots blocked by River Hawks defenders this year.

“Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more,” Carr said. “It’s really no different from any other night, those guys just lay their bodies on the line every single night, and they’ve been making my job pretty easy all year. We’ve been so consistent in the D-zone, outworking other teams and blocking shots and stuff like that. Wins like this don’t come easily, and our five-man unit in the defensive zone really won us the game.”

As Bazin cautioned after Friday’s game, there’s still plenty of hockey to be played, with three weekends left in the season. So the River Hawks aren’t looking too far forward (or at least so says Carr), but if they did, they’d certainly see an almost guaranteed home playoff series, and a brighter future ahead.

Game of the Week

Boston University at UMass-Lowell, Friday

First-place is on the line, with the Terriers smarting from a gut-wrenching overtime loss to BC in the Beanpot final and the River Hawks looking to rebound from Saturday’s loss to Maine.

Hockey East power rankings

  1. UMass-Lowell (19-8-0, 14-7-0 Hockey East) – The River Hawks’ next victory will give them four times as many wins as their overall total from last year, and more than triples their 2010-11 Hockey East haul.
  2. Boston College (19-10-1, 13-7-1) – A thorough 6-1 win over Vermont Friday set up Monday’s thrilling overtime win in the Beanpot, where the Eagles earned their third straight title for the first time since 1963-65.
  3. Boston University (17-10-1, 13-7-1) – The Terriers took a pair of losses last week, and it’s the one that doesn’t count in the Hockey East standings – Monday’s 3-2 crusher in the Beanpot against BC – that hurt the worst.
  4. Maine (17-9-3, 12-8-2) – A split weekend against Providence and UMass-Lowell cost the Black Bears the opportunity to solidify a home-ice spot, and if the season ended today they’d be the No. 5 seed and travel to Merrimack on the head-to-head tiebreaker rule.
  5. Merrimack (15-7-6, 11-6-4) – Once the No. 1 team in the country, the Warriors are 3-3-2 over their last eight, with a loss and a draw last weekend bringing them into a tie with Maine for fourth place in Hockey East.
  6. New Hampshire (12-14-3, 9-11-2) – They’re continuing to dig out of the hole they were in early in the season, and the Wildcats are looking stronger each week, with a win and a tie last weekend to give them a little cushion in seventh place in Hockey East.
  7. Providence (12-14-2, 10-10-1) – A pair of wins over Maine and UMass stopped the bleeding for the Friars, who are an even 3-3 over their last six with a crucial pair of games at Northeastern ahead this weekend.
  8. Northeastern (11-14-3, 7-12-2) – The Huskies picked a bad time for their game to go south, with a pair of dispiriting Beanpot losses extending the program’s title drought to 24 years, and last Friday’s loss to New Hampshire dropping them just outside the playoff bubble.
  9. UMass (10-13-5, 6-11-4) – There is simply no way to figure the Minutemen out. Friday, they scored their third huge upset of the year with a 3-2 win over No. 2 BU, but the next night got down early and couldn’t catch up to Providence.
  10. Vermont (5-22-1, 2-18-1) – The Catamounts are the only team without a legitimate claim in what’s shaping up to be a heated Hockey East playoff race, and have to win out to have even a hope of making the tournament – even then, they’d need both Northeastern and UMass to go winless the rest of the way.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at MerrittNEHJ@gmail.com.