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Season of the Condor

January 7, 2008

You’ve all heard the story by now, of course.

UMass Lowell’s hockey team was one do-not-resuscitate away from having the plug pulled on the entire program thanks to the now-resigned Chairman of the UMass Board of Directors Stephen Tocco.

But, like the California Condor, the River Hawks are back from the brink of extinction, not just surviving, but thriving.

The circumstances are remarkable: a team picked ninth in Hockey East, ahead of just Merrimack. A team that lost a slew of recruits for one reason or another, to the lure of junior hockey or a serious medical condition. A team with just one senior and three juniors. A team with no proven goaltending, or scoring for that matter.

But here the River Hawks are, No. 14 in the country, tied for third in the Hockey East standings, and picking up steam. It should be a national story.

Thanks in large part to the play of Nevin Hamilton (2.57 goals-against average, .914 save percentage) and Carter Hutton (national bests 1.14 and .956), the River Hawks have by far the best defense in Hockey East and seventh in the nation. It’s a far cry from the tandem of Chris Davidson and Dominic Smart a few years ago.

But you know what the best part is? Lowell’s 9-4-4 record has come despite a ton of injuries. Players that were standouts last season, like tough defenseman Steve Capraro and slick forward Paul Worthington, have missed the entire first half of the season but are gearing up for second-half returns. Capraro is all but guaranteed to come back against Providence in five days. Unfortunately, Worthington’s post-concussion syndrome has left his return dicey, though the outlook is reportedly optimistic.

Several other key contributors, like Jeremy Dehner, the team’s best defenseman, and outstanding defensive forwards Nick Monroe and Ian Schaser have been sidelined for between five and seven games each, but others have performed admirably in their stead.

Freshman forward Todd Bartelson and sophomore defenseman(!) Tommy Powers, who filled in as fourth-line center, have eased the loss of Monroe and Schaser, and senior d-man Kelly Sullivan has filled in well in the absence of healthy regular blueliners.

But perhaps the biggest surprises this season have been a pair of walk-on freshmen. Jason DeLuca wasn’t even meant to play very much this season, and now it’s hard to picture the team without him. He’s played in each of Lowell’s 17 games, posting three goals and two assists, and posting to a +4 rating.

Meanwhile, hulking defenseman Ryan Blair has been flat-out incredible. In ably doling out big hits, big shots, steady defense and just a handful of “rookie mistakes,” the 6-4, 210-pound Virgina native has made an indelible impact on the UML blue line. His best game of the season came in a critical Hockey East matchup against BU, when he scored the goal that broke a 2-2 tie and sparked the Lowell offense, which struck again just 16 seconds later. Lowell went on to win 4-3. Oh, and Blair leads the team in +/- at +11.

One would be remiss to not mention the offensive explosion out of junior forwards Mark Roebothan (9-6-15) and Mike Potacco (5-8-13) as well as the emergence of much-heralded sophomore Chris Auger (4-8-12) and the surprising Div. 1-readiness of freshman defenseman Maury Edwards (3-6-9).

Even erstwhile forward Jonathan Maniff, whose nose for the net was the primary reason he was given a chance at Lowell but was barely used last season, has struck seven times for Lowell this year (with a pair of game-winners). Maniff posted scored two goals and two assists (2-1-3 in the 6-0 win over Maine) to power Lowell to a championship in the Florida College Classic, for which he was rewarded with the Tournament MVP award.

And if it wasn’t for Barry Goers’ torrid scoring pace early in the season (1-6-7 in the first six games), Lowell wouldn’t be where it is in Hockey East or the national rankings.

Now, the second half of the season and a two-game series with Providence looms, and Lowell, as has become evident over the last few seasons, is a second-half team.

Thanks to these guys (and many more) this unbelievable start has the River Hawk scratched from the endangered list. Let’s go Lowell.

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