June 11, 2014

UMass-Lowell demands respect with back-to-back titles

By Andrew Merritt


UMass-Lowell loses a ton of talent to graduation and pro defections, including scoring ace Joe Pendenza (14-16-30). (Photo/Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)
 

Maybe you could have called last year a fluke. But you can’t use that word anymore when you talk about UMass-Lowell.

The 2013 Hockey East championship might have taken a lot of people by surprise — as well it should, since it was the first time a team other than Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire or Maine had won the title in 17 years — but in 2014, UMass-Lowell went from a team on the rise to the team at the top.

The River Hawks were simply fantastic in 2013-14, and while BC opened up a late lead and took the league’s regular-season title, in the Hockey East tournament there was almost no stopping the defending champs.

They endured a grueling three-game quarterfinal series against Vermont in which they suffered an overtime loss in Game 2 but bounced back to beat the Catamounts in the clincher. As far as the league tournament goes, that’s where the tough stuff ended.

NEHJ Hockey East
Player of the Year

Johnny Gaudreau, Jr. F,
Boston College

Could it be anyone else? With 80 points, Gaudreau set a Hockey East record for points in a season, besting Craig Janney’s 1986-87 number by six. His Hobey Baker-winning year was simply one of the most dominant by a single player in the league’s history, and he was a difference maker every time he took the ice. Gaudreau’s skill with the puck was matched by his vision in being able to help linemates Bill Arnold and Kevin Hayes achieve their own career highs.

The 31-game point streak, in which he scored 29 goals and 32 assists, covered almost the entire season, and he finished on another three-game streak after seeing the first stretch broken at Notre Dame. In fact, Gaudreau was held off the scoresheet in only two games all year. And if Gaudreau’s diminutive stature was a problem, he certainly never let on, thriving as a small player in a BC system that has nurtured many over the years.

At TD Garden, the River Hawks were sublime, shutting out Notre Dame and UNH by 4-0 scores to win the Lamoriello Trophy for the second straight year. It was the first time in league history that the champion posted shutouts in the semifinals and final.

It was a fitting way for UMass-Lowell’s run through Hockey East to end. The River Hawks had far and away the league’s best defense, and behind the superb work of sophomore goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, they collected six shutouts in 2013-14. That was key in a year when the league became more closely contested than ever, for two reasons.

One, Hockey East welcomed its first new team in almost a decade, as Notre Dame became the 11th member of the conference and brought with it a championship pedigree and high quality of play. The Irish won the final CCHA championship a year ago, then bounced to Hockey East as the final domino to fall following a period of realignment that affected a large part of the college hockey map.

Two, because of the Irish’s entry, the league also switched to a shorter schedule, with teams playing just 20 league games instead of the 27 they had played since Vermont joined in 2005-06. Boston College ended up running away under the new format, finishing with 34 points, while Lowell was second with 25. And from that second position all the way to seventh, there were seven teams within five points of each other when the season ended, including two ties.

Hockey East will change again next year when it welcomes UConn as its 12th member, and as the league takes on a new look, UMass-Lowell has become its newest marquee team. BC, BU, UNH and Maine used to be a de facto “Big 4” with a stranglehold on the league. Last year, the River Hawks suggested they make room for another elite team.

This year, the River Hawks demanded it.

Boston College

The Good: Johnny Gaudreau exceeded even the loftiest expectations in his junior year, finishing with 36 goals and 44 assists to lead the nation in scoring, and his 80 points are the most by a collegiate player in more than a decade. The Eagles also found their goaltender of the future, as freshman Thatcher Demko stepped into the starting role by year’s end, and finished with a .919 save percentage and 2.24 goals-against average.

The Bad: The Eagles struggled to establish scoring depth, as no player outside of the top line had more than 15 goals and only six had more than 10. That haunted the Eagles in the Hockey East quarterfinals, where they were bounced by Notre Dame.

The Future: Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes (Dorchester, Mass.) and Bill Arnold (Needham, Mass.) are gone — Gaudreau to an early defection to the pros and Arnold and Hayes to graduation. The Eagles also lose captain Patrick Brown and defenseman Isaac MacLeod, who was the veteran presence on a very young defensive corps. Demko should bring some stability in net, but he’ll need to grow, and the Eagles will need to find a way to replace at least some of the scoring they lose with the top line.

Boston University

The Good: David Quinn’s (Cranston, R.I.) first year behind the bench didn’t have a lot of highlights, but freshman Robbie Baillargeon (10-17-27) of Enfield, Conn., was one of them. He and sophomore Danny O’Regan (Needham, Mass.), who had 10 goals and 12 assists, provided a little scoring pop up front for a rebuilding Terriers squad.

The Bad: The Terriers stumbled out of the gates and never found their footing, finishing outside the top eight for the first time in league history. A subpar offense wasn’t helped by the league’s worst defense, which allowed an average of 3.23 goals per game.

The Future: Here’s the bright side. Though senior captain Garrett Noonan (Norfolk, Mass.) meant a great deal to this year’s squad, the Terriers watch only five goals and 21 assists worth of production walk out the door with diplomas. A young core, and one of the most highly touted recruiting classes in the country, give BU hope for a big bounce back in 2014-15.

Maine

The Good: Maine rebounded under new coach Red Gendron, finishing sixth in a tight playoff race and putting together an impressive win over BU at Fenway Park. Sophomore Devin Shore had a breakout season, collecting 14 goals and 19 assists, and classmate Ben Hutton proved to be one of the best offensive defensemen in the country.

The Bad: All year, Maine was plagued by an inability to win on the road, going 1-12-3 away from Alfond Arena. That was the Black Bears’ downfall in the Hockey East quarterfinals, where they were swept by Providence in two games at Schneider Arena.

The Future: Gendron has built a team of believers in Orono, and with Shore and Hutton returning for their junior seasons, Maine ought to be a more significant offensive squad. The biggest hole will be in goal, where Martin Ouellette graduates after a solid career, leaving no returning goalies with college experience.

UMass

The Good: There’s one big, surprising highlight to the Minutemen season: the power play. Somehow, a team that finished with the second-fewest goals per game (2.24) managed to finish second in the league on the power play, with a 22.0 percent success rate that fell just behind BC’s 24.3 percent.

The Bad: After reaching the Hockey East quarterfinals every year from 2003-12, the Minutemen have now missed twice in a row. Other than a promising debut from freshman Steven Iacobellis (11-10–21), there wasn’t much for the Minutemen to hang their hat on in John Micheletto’s second year behind the bench.

The Future: UMass will undergo a huge overhaul this offseason with nine seniors graduating, including leading point scorer Conor Sheary (9-19–28). There will be a lot of building for Micheletto to do, but with a chance to bring in a large crop of his own recruits, next year should be his best opportunity to get started.

UMass-Lowell

The Good: Connor Hellebuyck (.941, 1.79) established himself as the best goaltender in the country and was named the inaugural Mike Richter Award winner for just that purpose. The offense came from a balanced group, but Joe Pendenza (Wilmington, Mass.) led with 14 goals and 16 assists, and Christian Folin led a rock-solid defensive corps.

The Bad: The River Hawks could have used some more scoring, as they finished seventh in the league at 2.83 goals per game. And while they won one chapter of their burgeoning rivalry with BC by taking the league title, they fell short against the Eagles in the Worcester Regional, ending their bid for back-to-back Frozen Four trips.

The Future: The biggest losses for UML will be sophomores Hellebuyck and Folin, who both left early for the pros, as did junior forward Scott Wilson. With Doug Carr (Hanover, Mass.) graduating, there will be no returning goalies with experience. Up front, Derek Arnold’s leadership and Pendenza’s scoring will be lost to graduation, as will the strong game of Josh Holmstrom. Adam Chapie (12-11–23) is the leading returning scorer.

Merrimack

The Good: Mike Collins (Roslindale, Mass.) put together a fine farewell season, scoring 12 goals and 13 assists to lead the Warriors. Freshman Chris LeBlanc’s season was abbreviated by injury, but he was fourth on the team in scoring.

The Bad: Not much else worked well for the Warriors this year. They were dead last in offense with just 1.88 goals scored per game, and defensively allowed nearly three goals per game. They also had the league’s worst power play, and its second worst penalty kill.

The Future: The loss of Collins to graduation means the loss of nearly 20 percent of the team’s goal scoring, as no other player had more than 10. Merrimack also might look for another solution in net, as Rasmus Tirronen struggled in his junior year. Not to be ignored, too, is the departure of senior defenseman Jordan Heywood, who provided solid leadership among the Warriors’ rearguard.

New Hampshire

The Good: A pair of losses to Vermont seemed to jump-start the Wildcats, who lost just three more times in their final nine games en route to a berth in the Hockey East championship game for the first time since 2007. They had the league’s third-best offense and were sparked by senior Kevin Goumas, who led the team with 52 points on 19 goals and 33 assists.

The Bad: UNH was a perfectly average team that never quite got rolling in 2013-14. Defensively, it allowed 2.59 goals per game despite having a positive shots on goal margin, as Casey DeSmith (Rochester, N.H.) came back to earth a bit in his junior season.

The Future: The Wildcats are getting hammered by graduation this year and will lose four of their top five scorers, including Goumas. Matt Willows, who scored 18 goals and 21 assists, is the leading returning scorer. DeSmith will be a senior next year, and it’s obvious that UNH will need him to put together a solid finale if it’s going to compete.

Northeastern

The Good: The Huskies scored a bunch of goals — the second most per game in the league  — and Clay Witt stopped a whole bunch more, becoming one of the surprise stories of the year. His .932 save percentage was the second best number in the league, and his 1,043 saves were more than any Hockey East goaltender this year.

The Bad: Witt’s save percentage was so good because the Huskies allowed opponents to unload dozens of shots per night. They allowed 34.57 shots on goal per game, which was second worst in Hockey East and ranked them 52nd in the nation. They were one of only two teams in the country to allow more than 33 shots per game and still have a winning record.

The Future: This year’s leading goal scorer, Braden Pimm (20-17–37), graduates this spring, but otherwise the Huskies bring back most of their offensive nucleus, as well as Witt in goal. They do lose defensive stalwart Josh Manson a year early to the pros, but otherwise will return in September with their blueline corps intact.

Notre Dame

The Good: In their first year in Hockey East, the Irish had the league’s second best defense, allowing just 2.15 goals per game, and its fourth best offense at 3.00 goals scored per game. T.J. Tynan racked up 38 points, and Bryan Rust led the way with 17 goals. Notre Dame also scored a surprise victory over Boston College in the quarterfinals.

The Bad: The Irish struggled when it came to the league schedule, picking up just nine wins against Hockey East competition. Goaltender Steven Summerhays got off to a tremendous start but faded down the stretch, and the Irish had some trouble picking up the slack.

The Future: Notre Dame also will get whacked by graduation this year, losing both Tynan and Rust as well as defensive keystone Stephen Johns and Summerhays. However, Vince Hinostroza (8-24-32) proved to be one of the league’s best rookies and will return, as will sophomore Mario Lucia (16-15–31).

Providence

The Good: The Friars got hot late in the year, going on a four-game tear to finish the season and grab the No. 3 seed for the playoffs. And after getting bounced in the semifinals by New Hampshire, they beat Quinnipiac to earn a shot at Union in the NCAA East Regional final. Ross Mauermann (19-17–36) led a balanced, deep attack.

The Bad: Goaltender Jon Gillies (South Portland, Maine) took a step back in his sophomore season, and after getting off to a hot start, seemed to struggle from December on. That was part of a midseason slump for the Friars, who finished in the middle of the pack in scoring. The low-water mark for Gillies came on Jan. 25 against UMass-Lowell, when he allowed five goals on just 19 shots.

The Future: Gillies is set to return, and if he can recapture the magic of his freshman season, he should be one of the league’s best. The Friars also looked to be stacked on offense, with all of their top five scorers returning.

Vermont

The Good: Freshman Mario Puskarich (19-17-36) was arguably the best player in Hockey East who didn’t wear a Boston College jersey. Freshman Mike Santaguida stepped in when sophomore Brody Hoffman was injured early on, and challenged him for goaltending minutes throughout the season. Senior Chris McCarthy led with 42 points.

The Bad: After Puskarich’s 19 goals and McCarthy’s 18, the Catamounts had no other double-digit scorers, ending up with the league’s fourth-weakest offense at 2.76 goals per game. A strong non-conference showing helped UVM get into the national tournament, but the Catamounts’ league mark left something to be desired.

The Future: The Catamounts lose some key pieces in McCarthy, defenseman Nick Bruneteau and forward Connor Brickley (Everett, Mass.) when the diplomas are handed out this spring, but Puskarich could challenge for the league scoring title and defenseman Michael Paliotta is one of the better shutdown blueliners in the conference.

This article originally appeared in the May edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to access the FREE digital edition.

Twitter: @A_Merritt

Email: amerritt@hockeyjournal.com