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Postmortem: That just happened

March 30, 2012

Nothing about this season hasn’t been strange.

We took most of the week off from writing this season recap because the more we thought about how we would approach such a thing, the less sense it seemed to make in the grand scheme of things. Let’s first dispense with the general facts that we knew going into the season:

  1. There was no definitive goaltender on the team, given that both Doug Carr and Marc Boulanger had regrettable freshman seasons, to put it mildly.
  2. There was maybe one good all-around defenseman on the team, that being Chad Ruhwedel.
  3. There was no forward depth to speak of, given that scoring dropped off a cliff from David Vallorani and Riley Wetmore’s 30-plus points to Matt Ferreira’s third-on-the-team 17 points.
  4. There was a new coach who had never had a head job in Division 1 college hockey.
  5. There was very little reason to believe any of the above would be conducive to a season of more than, to put it optimistically, seven to nine wins.

There were all more or less understood.

We were not, therefore, surprised, when just about every publication in college hockey picked the River Hawks to finish last in Hockey East this year. Five wins last year? Even being optimistic and seeing an improvement for this still-very-young team, it was hard to believe that this was a team that could, by the end of the season, have collected enough points to make the playoffs. And that’s coming from a blog which considered the five-win season to have been a shocking disappointment.

And of course, this team proved all of the above concerns wrong more or less right away. That’s not to say a pair of wins over lowly Mankato, no matter what time zone the games were played in, was any particular reason for encouragement, nor was the following neutral-site loss to UConn. But in the following game, against juggernaut BC, Lowell really showed us something. Oh yeah, the River Hawks lost that one 4-3, and got creamed the next night (though they very easily could have given up in that one and didn’t), but that started us thinking.

Lowell ran BC’s show start to finish in that first home game, and that would be a theme for the remainder of the season, as Lowell spent much of the year nearly invincible at Tsongas Center. When much-hyped BU rattled into town the next weekend, we weren’t sure what to expect. And what we got was mind-blowing. Lowell breezed to a 7-1 victory that honestly could have been a lot uglier, after having conceded a goal just 16 seconds into the game. Everything about that game, in retrospect, highlighted just what would become the hallmarks of this team: strong puck possession, relentless forecheck, total commitment to team defense, shotblocking, and of course, top-shelf goaltending.

The winning more or less continued through to the final game before break, with Lowell crumpling its opponents in seven of eight games, the one loss coming in a difficult building with Doug Carr on the bench. Those included a pair of wins over eventual NCAA tournament entry Maine in Orono of all places. Those wins were, at the time at least, symbolically important not because of who they were against or where they were played, but rather because they gave Lowell the fifth win of its young season, matching the previous campaigns’ total by just Nov. 12. The River Hawks followed that pair of virtuoso road performances with a revenge sweep over UNH and a series-saver against BC.

However, before break concluded, Lowell also got its second taste of perhaps the only disappointing trademark of the season, a 3-2 road loss to a truly bad Northeastern team which was, admittedly, on a hot streak at that time.

That streak continued through the Christmas tournament, which required Lowell to go to overtime against UConn to win, and then in the first league game back afterwards in a baffling OT loss to Vermont. The ‘Hawks of course bounced back with another redemption sweep, this time against the same Northeastern squad that put them in an uncomfortable position about a month earlier, but then, in perhaps the worst game of the season — and one that wound up foreshadowing something much darker — lost a 1-0 game to Providence. Now granted, that was in the middle of a stretch in which Lowell would play five games in eight days, the middle three of which were on the road, but still, it appeared Lowell was making a nasty habit of losing to extraordinarily beatable teams.

Any fear of that was temporarily dashed away, however, as Lowell ticked off a sweep of Amherst and Vermont, then dominated a strong Merrimack team at Tsongas. Another run of success, again totaling seven wins in eight, and Lowell was 19-7-0 but now facing its toughest ask of the season: hosting Maine and then playing a home-and-home against BU. Both teams were nationally ranked and playing perhaps their best hockey of the season, and Lowell found that in the two home games it played against those teams, it was outplayed and, in the BU game, embarrassed before its home crowd. Those two losses tripled the team’s home loss total, but Lowell earned a measure of revenge by manhandling BU at Agganis Arena, on NESN.

However, that win was, it seemed, not good enough to jolt back into playing the brand of hockey it had become known for. It took just one point from a wobbly Merrimack, and looked pretty bad doing it, the following weekend, and that more or less cost the team the chance to compete for the regular season title in the following, final weekend of the year. Nonetheless, the River Hawks handed Providence its lunch in the two-game finale, and, thanks to a very lucky last-game overtime win by Northeastern, finished the season second in the league, tying a school-best mark.

Of course, we all know what happened next. The team sleepwalked through a three-game series against those same Friars, falling not unlike Icarus out of the league playoffs as the only second seed to ever drop a quarterfinal series against the seven. By that point, though, the River Hawks had already secured its first NCAA tournament spot, and simply waited for word of who they would face and where they would do it.

As it turned out, the opponent was Miami of Ohio, and the venue was relatively-nearby Bridgeport, Conn. Lowell fans positively poured into that city, and more than 1,000 strong were there to see Lowell dump the heavily-favored RedHawks 4-3 in overtime, and to cheer them on as they were pushed around pretty convincingly by Union in the regional final. But Lowell fans could draw encouragement from the fact that, unlike the previous month-plus, the team got back to playing the brand of hockey that had made it successful all season, which helps to explain why it put four past one of the best defensive teams in the country.

In the end, Lowell won 24 games, lost 13, and tied one. All this is nearly incomprehensible when considering how the previous year went.

One thing that happened kind of a lot throughout this season was that, the first time a team played Lowell, it usually seemed particularly flabbergasted with how to handle this group that it had just bullied a year before. Often, by the time they got their feet under them in the face of this uptempo, tenacious, mean brand of hockey, the game was already swayed heavily to Lowell’s favor. And that’s how we’ve felt from the outset as well.

We still don’t know exactly how to process all this, to be perfectly honest with you. It’s like accidentally going from first gear on the highway to fifth, and your car happily and easily managing the shift — which logically or mechanically shouldn’t have happened — like it does this kind of thing all the time.

Nearly five times as many wins as the year before. The mind boggles.

Final grades
Three quick things to note: all grading is done solely by us and is relative to our expectations of them rather than any single metric. Also, players are listed numerically by position and have to have played in 13 games (more than 33 percent of the schedule) to receive a grade. You’ll also want to keep in mind that we’re not easy graders.

Forwards
Shayne Thompson (32 GP, 1-3-4): C
Not to start this off all negative, but it’s unfortunately gotten to the point where we don’t expect much out of Thompson, and we got more or less exactly that. We were occasionally pleased, however, at how he adapted to the team asking him to play the odd game at defense instead of his normal forward.

Colin Wright (29 GP, 4-1-5): C
A much better season for Wright than he turned in last year, but still not anywhere near as good as his freshman campaign. We have higher hopes that he can turn it around as a senior. And hey, we’ll always have that beautiful shortie against Miami of Ohio, won’t we?

Terrence Wallin (38 GP, 8-17-25): B+
When Wallin was on, he was a very, very good player for this team. Saw the game well, could frequently use his speed to impose his will, and if this were any other season, he’d have made a strong case for the team’s rookie of the year award. We were troubled by his cold goalscoring streak toward the end of the year, but we think he can be very successful with this season.

David Vallorani (38 GP, 10-19-29): B-
This season was a bit of a step back for Vallorani, as far as production goes. He had just two goals and 11 points following the Christmas break, and that’s simply not good enough for a player of his caliber and skill level. Nonetheless, when the season was just getting under way, he was top-quality, and that cannot be forgotten.

Stephen Buco (30 GP, 2-12-14): C+
Buco came from a lower-tier junior league but put up ridiculously big numbers, so while two goals is a little less than we’d have liked, having 14 points in 30 games isn’t bad for a freshman who had limited opportunities.

Josh Holmstrom (38 GP, 12-8-20): A-
Last season, we really liked Holmstrom’s defensive game a lot, but he didn’t score a goal all season. At the break this year, he had three goals. He quadrupled that number in the final 20 games. What a winter. Can’t wait to see what he does next year.

Joe Pendenza (38 GP, 10-19-29): A
Pendenza is one of those forwards you really only appreciate if you’re paying attention or he gets a breakaway. The kid has speed to lend and a good skill level, which leads to a lot of nice-looking plays. But he also plays great defense and is a player you never have to worry about making the wrong play. One of our favorite River Hawks.

Riley Wetmore (38 GP, 14-25-39): A
Pretty impossible to be in any way unhappy with this big step forward for Wetmore, who has really rounded out his game and become a tremendous leader for this team. What else can you say? Just a great season.

Matt Ferreira (37 GP, 14-18-32): A+
In a word? Revelatory. That’s the only way to describe a guy going from a career line of 15-12-27 to 14-18-32 in one season. A perfect swan song, and a key part of the team in all three zones.

Mike Budd (35 GP, 6-5-11): C
This was just about what we’d have projected for Budd at the start of the year, and that’s just about what we got. Can’t complain, but can’t be thrilled either.

Scott Wilson (37 GP, 16-22-38): A+
It’s pretty nice to have a freshman who’s in the conversation for national rookie of the year, and indeed, Wilson was one of Lowell’s best players from start to finish this season. We cannot wait to see him play on a line with Derek Arnold and Riley Wetmore for the majority of a season. The goals, one suspects, will pile up rather quickly.

Derek Arnold (38 GP, 17-17-34): A
Like Holmstrom, Arnold turned a not-great rookie campaign into one in which he became a very legitimate goalscoring threat. His one-timer is just lethal, and jumping from two goals to 17 is about as much as you can ask of anyone.

Defensemen
Malcolm Lyles (30 GP, 1-6-7): D+
When Lyles has a good game, he’s incredibly fun to watch, as he mixes speed with skill and a willingness to move the puck quite adeptly. Unfortunately, we don’t feel as though he was able to live up to our expectations as someone who can consistently lead the rush. Too many miscues, too many moments that shouldn’t happen for a junior, regardless of how much college hockey he played as a freshman and sophomore at BC. We really think he can be a good second-pairing defenseman next season, but it will take some work.

Chad Ruhwedel (37 GP, 6-19-25): A+
What a player. There were very few sure things on the River Hawks entering the season, but Ruhwedel was one of them. We knew what we would get, but we didn’t expect to get so much of it. The skill he could display on the rush was a pleasant surprise, and he wasn’t shy about exhibiting it in the offensive zone either. And of course there was the lockdown defense to go with it. Ruhwedel also gave us our biggest laugh of the season when, after he went roof against Vermont, he skated over to the right corner of the ice and pressed the omnipresent “EASY” button. That was unbeatable.

Tim Corcoran (25 GP, 1-3-4): C+
We were a little shocked that Corcoran played 25 games this year — we would have sworn on a stack of bibles that it was less than that — but that speaks to what he’s always given you: steady, if unmemorable, defense. He did, however, have his best offensive season by far, so there’s that.

Dan Furlong (34 GP, 3-5-8): B-
Furlong was an interesting case, in our book. When he had a good night at the rink — such as against Northeastern or BU — he was stunning. When he didn’t, he was average-to-passable, then made a maddening play. Fortunately, he had more good nights than we felt we had any right to expect from him.

Billy Eiserman (29 GP, 0-4-4): C+
You always knew what you were getting with Eiserman. Unspectacular play from a fifth defenseman who didn’t make a ton of mistakes, and then the occasional nice play. We won’t soon forget his pass to Steve Buco for a goal against RPI in the UConn tournament. We want that playing forever on a loop on a video screen somewhere. We will, however, settle for more like it next season.

Zack Kamrass (33 GP, 1-10-11): B+
Kamrass is another interesting case. He had only played 12 games the last time we handed out grades, and he pulled a C+ for his solitary assist in that stretch. Therefore, whatever he did over break, can we also get the rest of the team to do it? This was the biggest jump in a TIIL grade over a half season this year, and maybe ever. Just a marvelous turnaround for a kid to put up 10 points in the second half of his freshman year, and he was correctly named to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team. If he keeps on this pace of improvement, he’ll be Ruhwedel-good by the end of next season.

Jake Suter (37 GP, 0-3-3): A-
And just as Kamrass was duly rewarded for his strong second half, Suter was robbed, which proves coaches don’t ever check anything aside from stats. This kid is the definition of a rock-solid stay-at-home d-man who blocks shots better than just about anyone in the league. When a freshman can be mentioned in the same breath defensively as Ruhwedel, that’s huge, and definitely not bad for a kid who didn’t even have a college team late in the summer. We would, however, like a little more offense next year.

Goaltenders
Doug Carr (33 GP, 22-10-1; 2.13, .928): A+
Best goalie in Hockey East after being among the statistical worst last season. End of discussion.

Okay, that’ll do it for us for the season. Thamks for making this the best and busiest season in TIIL history, and we hope you’ll stop in next year as well. Lowell forever, forever Lowell.

Blog stats at the half
118,876 words over:
122 posts (974.4 per).
23 weeks (5,168.5 per).
261 pages, single-spaced.

You’re welcome.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Peter permalink
    March 30, 2012 11:07 am

    Great season, I’m thinking of applying to go back to school at UMass so I can go to every game, over the next 3 year’s. And I can’t say enough about the band!!

    RiverHawks Rock

    • RHHB permalink*
      March 30, 2012 11:09 am

      UMass is in Amherst and also sucks.

  2. Rich permalink
    March 31, 2012 4:34 am

    Thanks for giving us a space to revel in the highs and putting all our thoughts into words this season. Can’t wait till next season!

  3. Monty permalink
    April 1, 2012 12:55 pm

    Great job this year guys, it was appreciated. Is it October yet?

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