March 24, 2013

UML proves they have all the pieces to conquer Hockey East

By Andy Merritt

The River Hawks celebrate their first-ever Hockey East championship. (Dave Arnold Photography)

BOSTON – As much as they’d hate to admit it, hockey teams are not simply uniform units of faceless players. You’ve got to have the right pieces. Just as a recipe with only one good ingredient doesn’t taste right, hockey teams with one good player don’t win trophies.

UMass-Lowell has those pieces, and they were on display Saturday night in the 29th Hockey East championship game, a 1-0 victory that gave the River Hawks the first league title in the program’s history.

You’ve got to have goaltending, perhaps before anything else. Connor Hellebuyck, the rookie goaltender from Commerce, Mich., made 36 saves to earn the fourth shutout in the history of the Hockey East final – not to mention the tournament MVP award.

“You don’t win a championship without a great goalie, and tonight I thought he was spectacular,” coach Norm Bazin said. “He made key stops at key moments to keep the game tied, and you can’t say enough about the kid. He was the difference tonight, and his poise and his calm demeanor are by far his strongest asset. He gives you a chance to win every night, and that’s all you can ask for as a coach.”

You also need some scoring.  Enter Derek Arnold, the local boy from Foxboro, Mass., who told BU coach Jack Parker (Somerville, Mass.) after the game that he wished he’d played for him – a sentiment the retiring 40-year coach echoed back. Arnold scored one of the most important goals in UMass-Lowell history, jumping on a loose puck off BU captain Wade Megan’s stick, leading teammates Chad Ruhwedel and Scott Wilson down the ice, and taking a returning feed from Wilson (via Ruhwedel) for a wrap-around goal that beat BU’s stellar Sean Maguire for the title-clinching score.

You’ve also got to have a little leadership. That’s where captain Riley Wetmore comes in. In addition to leading the team with 15 goals, Wilson is the beating heart of the River Hawks; a wily, hard-working player who finds himself in the middle of most key plays each game.

“We’ve talked about Riley Wetmore before, we can talk about him again, because he’s a winner,” Bazin said. “He’s just a substance person, whether you’re talking about hockey or you’re talking about off-ice. When you have a leader like that, you have a chance, and he wasn’t going to be denied tonight.”

Wilson is another one of those key cogs that have made the UMass-Lowell engine go this year, a fearsome scorer whose 15 goals tied him with Wetmore for the team lead (and whose . His goal in Friday night’s semifinal against Providence put UMass-Lowell in the final, so it was more than a little symbolic that he be the one to give the puck to Arnold for Saturday night’s clincher.

Yet it was Wilson’s defense that impressed Bazin even more.

“He’s certainly bought in, and everybody’s bought in, to playing defense. When you’ve got a skilled offensive player like that who’s willing to block and get in front of pucks, it bodes well for his career and his development, and it’s a major step in the overall development for UMass-Lowell.”

At the center of the puzzle is coach Norm Bazin, who started building the program from the doldrums of a 5-25-4 season the year before he was hired. When Bazin took over in the summer of 2011, he was returning to his alma mater, a place where he and the Dwayne Roloson-led 1994 team came within one goal of winning the Hockey East title.

Now, Bazin and the River Hawks are the champions, and they’ve done it just weeks after one of the tightest regular season races in league history ended with them atop the standings, giving them a double-trophy season that is a rarity in rough-and-tumble Hockey East.

“I think there’s a time where you have to say ‘why not Lowell?’ And that’s this year,” Bazin said.

Bazin and his assistants, Jason Lammers and Cam Ellsworth, have built a team with a lot of the right pieces – scoring, defense, goaltending. But there are plenty of teams with all the right pieces that never win a thing. There have already been two of those at UMass-Lowell. To exorcise the demons of 1994 and 2009, those pieces had to work in concert.

“I felt it was in our locker room somewhere,” Bazin said.

But Bazin knows that sometimes “it” never makes its way out of the locker room. He saw it in 1994, when he, Roloson and the rest of the River Hawks fell to Boston University 3-2 in the final.

“From personal experience, obviously we came one goal short in 94 when I was here, and [junior forward] Josh Holmstrom’s brother Ben came up one goal short to BU,” Bazin said. “You always want to win when you play, but it was fitting that we played BU tonight.”

Ben Holmstrom, whose team lost to 1-0 to the eventual national champion Terriers in the 2009 final, is now a center with the Adirondack Phantoms of the AHL. He spoke to the River Hawks before Saturday’s final, giving them what Arnold called “some words of wisdom.”

Whether it was those words from an alumnus, the leadership of Wetmore, the scoring prowess of Arnold or the lights-out goaltending of Hellebuyck, all the pieces came together for the River Hawks Saturday night, and that’s what made them champions.

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