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Postmortem: Almost

March 19, 2010

Once there were great expectations for this hockey club.

In successive years, it posted a 5-2-2 record over its last nine games and  narrowly missed the league playoffs despite a freshman-laden roster and a 20-game winless streak, taken a strong and second-seeded BU team to the limit in a three-game series despite having the least-experienced team in the country, and then rampaged through the Hockey East playoffs before eventually being screwed out of a goal against  the eventual national champions in the league title game.

So this was, obviously, supposed to be The Year.

Lowell’s hockey program is not exactly one that is accustomed to large-scale success at the Division 1 level, of course. After Lowell was done beating every team in Division 2 over and over and over again for something like 500 years straight, it moved to Div. 1 in 1983 and, in those 27 seasons, has enjoyed a winning record just 10 times. Over the course of our nearly two decades as Lowell fans, we’ve come to realize that successes must be measured against tempered expectations.

For example, the first season about which we just wrote was famously called The Season of No Expectations because we saw that to even hope for anything from a team with that makeup was to hope for too much. The following season was dubbed The Season of Slight Expectations, in which we hoped only for a playoff berth and a strong showing (which we got). Last season brought us The Season of Heightened Expectations, and we posted on this very blog that we wanted them team to compete for an NCAA berth, which it could do if it managed to “win a playoff series, get to the Garden, and probably win one there too” (and once again, the ‘Hawks delivered, this time to the letter).

So this season was the last for Lowell’s dynamic-shifting class of 2010, who had been with the program since it almost ceased to be, and helped to build it up considerably over their remaining three seasons. The campaign was dubbed, with apologies to Charles Dickens, the Season of Great Expectations, and for good reason.

The previous years had been mere building blocks upon which the program was to construct its crowning achievement, a legacy so positive and undeniable that Lowell would have to be viewed as being notably better than the rest of the Hockey East riff-raff that so clogs the middle portion of the league table year after year. This was the season in which wheat would be separated from chaff and Lowell’s program, thanks to long-absent support from the university administration, would finally reach the once-unreachable horizon, conquerors of all the blood-soaked terrain they had crossed to get there.

And somehow, in the course of the six months over which this past season was played, that dream evaporated. Perhaps the goals were too lofty and, not unlike Icarus, this team flew too near the Heavens for its own good and learned a valuable lesson about knowing one’s place in the world. Perhaps the expectations heaped upon the team proved too heavy a load to bear. Perhaps this team was just never as good as everyone thought it should have been.

Perhaps all three.

Before this season began, the team’s seniors talked in every available publication about a desire to “leave [their] legacy.” By that, they meant that they wanted to make an indelible, unforgettable mark on the program at both the local and national level. It may have been too much to hope that anyone ever thought of Lowell in the same breath as the BCs and UNHs of the world, but certainly they could improve the school’s reputation with the highly-achievable treble of a regular-season title, a tournament championship and an NCAA that wasn’t just one-and-done.

They had the horses to do it. Carter Hutton and Nevin Hamilton had proven over the years to be two of the three or four best goaltenders in Lowell history. Returning All-American junior Maury Edwards led a deep and immensely talented blue line corps that could score on opponents as easily as it could prevent opponents from scoring. The offense, and the power play in particular, was potent enough, and rife with talented players like Kory Falite, David Vallorani and Scott Campbell, that could make opponents pay for their mistakes with disconcerting ease.

After all, the previous season, in which the majority of the team was composed of mere juniors and sophomores, Lowell was one of two teams in Hockey East to finish in the league’s top-three in offense, defense, power play and penalty kill. The other was the national champion Boston University Terriers, and that, certainly portended good things for this fresh campaign.

But we know now that it was never to be. So what, then, killed the River Hawks?

Let’s start with what didn’t do it: most of what you probably perceive to be the problem.

Yes, the overall offense was seventh-best in the league this season at 2.92 goals per game. Last year? Sixth-best at 2.95. Defense was best in Hockey East at 2.36, but was actually down from 2.26, good for third-best in the league a year ago. And remember how bad Lowell’s power play was this year? Fifth best in the league at 19.4 percent. Last year it was a second-best in the league at… 19.3 percent.

What really killed the team this year was its penalty kill. You might think a drop from 87.8 in 2008-09 to 83.2 this year wouldn’t be especially precipitous or costly, but you would be wrong. Lowell gave up 180 power plays last season and allowed 22 power play goals. Lowell gave up 173 power plays this year and allowed 29 power play goals. The difference seems subtle, but consider this: if Lowell had the same efficiency rating on the penalty kill this season as it did last year, it would have allowed eight fewer goals over the course of the season.

Again, you might be saying that eight goals isn’t a lot, but it’s nearly nine percent of the season’s total goals against. A full 17 of Lowell’s 20 losses and ties were decided by one goal, which is a lot. In 11 of those games, Lowell allowed a power play goal. And in five of those 11, that power play goal either tied the game for Lowell’s opponent, or stood up as the game-winner.

Five results decided while Lowell was on the penalty kill. Three of them — Oct. 30’s 6-5 OT home loss to BU, Jan. 8’s 2-2 draw at UNH and Jan. 16’s 2-1 home loss to Amherst — in Hockey East play. All three in the third period or overtime. Five points Lowell allowed to be stolen, five points that would have spelled the difference between a trip to Orono and home ice.

And certainly Lowell could have used the extra five results to construct a more compelling case for its long-forgotten hope of an NCAA at-large bid. Having, let’s be kind and say 22 wins instead of 19, would have gone a long way toward that.

But the second and more obvious reason why Lowell’s season was over the second weekend in March is underperformance. Only seven players on the team actually increased their points-per-game totals from last year, and only three (Chris Auger, Kory Falite and Scott Campbell) had it increase by 10 percent or more. And if only seven players from a group of 16 returning players increased their scoring, that means nine players saw their points per game decrease, and of those, seven saw it decrease by more than 10 percent.

The worst offender, of course, is Maury Edwards, who went from 11 goals and 18 assists with a plus-11 to four goals and 11 assists with a minus-6. The points-per-game dropoff is close to 50 percent. The goals per game dropoff is 65.5 percent. Unless there was some catastrophic injury about which we are unaware, that regression from sophomore to junior year is completely inexcusable.

Another frustrating deterioration of output is far less noticeable: that of David Vallorani. Sure, the relapse from 27 points in 38 games to 27 points in 39 games is hardly significant, and he still finished third on the team in scoring, but he had literally the exact same scoring line of 9-18-27 both seasons. While it’s hard to call that a sophomore slump, it’s also not the type of improvement upon which we had been banking.

Finally we come to Kory Falite, for whom we had such high hopes of a bounce-back. “But fellows,” you may be saying, “Falite was very good this year, led the team in goalscoring and tied for the lead in points.” The problem is this: his goals total certainly improved considerably from 14 to 18, but his goals per game total increased exactly .01, from .452 to .462. And while he scored far more at even strength (16 goals compared to seven last year), his power play scoring dropped off a cliff. He went from 7-4-11 on the man advantage last season (and remember, in eight fewer games) to just 2-6-8 this year. Granted goals at even strength are more important than those on the power play, but a 71.4 percent decrease in power play goals is more than a little disconcerting.

Don’t get us wrong: we don’t blame these individual players for this season being a complete and total failure. But we find their lack of production to be symptomatic of a greater problem. The one thing you’ll notice about each of the four seasons in which this senior class is how tantalizingly close this team always came to achieving its goals.

These guys finished three points out of a playoff spot in their freshman season because it left its fate in the hands of two other teams: Providence, which eventually finished eighth thanks to its final-weekend sweep of last-place Merrimack. Their sophomore year saw them grab a seventh-place finish, just two points back of sixth-place Northeastern. The team earned its first playoff win in years in the quarterfinals against BU, and led by two goals in each of the two games it lost. Their junior year, they were a win away from an NCAA tournament appearance for the first time since 1996, and a controversial non-goal away from what could have been their first Hockey East championship.

And this year, they were a point — and really just one goal against Vermont on the final night of the regular season — away from home ice, a win or maybe two from an NCAA berth, a win short of back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time since 1994, an overtime shy of advancing to the Garden for the second year in a row.

So that’s the legacy. Falling just short.

There’s no question Lowell’s stature has been lifted considerably by this incredible, talented crop of departing seniors, many of whom will play professional hockey for more than a few seasons, and some of whom have some chance at playing in the NHL one day. The River Hawks are no longer an afterthought to the league’s top teams, but a rival to be feared and respected. It certainly wasn’t that way when this four-year journey began. They, along with a few other factors over which they had no control, helped push Lowell closer toward being a nationally-regarded name in college hockey. The quality of the recruits that have come aboard since their first days in Lowell sweaters has improved and, hopefully, will continue to do so.

But for these 11 seniors, a better “almost,” after all, is still just “almost.”

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.

Forwards
Colin Wright (35 GP, 7-3-10): B-
What to say about Wright that we didn’t say when we awarded him TIIL Rookie of the Year honors on Wednesday? Kid’s a hockey player and acquitted himself well all season. We’re big fans.

Riley Wetmore (39 GP, 6-9-15): C+
Another strong freshman performance, but one that was hindered, a little bit, by the tendency to take untimely penalties.

David Vallorani (39 GP, 9-18-27): B-
Literally the same scoring line as last season. It’s hard to argue with results, but at the same time a performance like that is almost like regression, and that’s not good.

Sammy D’Agostino (13 GP, 0-0-0): C-
What’re we gonna say? We didn’t expect this? Dags is an energy guy, and he provided plenty of that when he was on the ice, which wasn’t very often. Would we have liked more points? Sure, but how many could we have reasonably wanted above the zero he got?

Kory Falite (39 GP, 18-16-34): B-
Everything we needed to say about Falite was said above. It was at once an impressive and disappointing season from the kid, odd though that may sound.

Joe Caveney (8 GP, 1-1-2): Incomplete
We liked Caveney a lot in the four games we saw him play live, but we didn’t see enough to form any type of opinion.

Scott Campbell (39 GP, 16-18-34): C+
Imagine if Scott Campbell played the way he does in the final weeks of the season for an entire year? He’d put up giant numbers. In his entire career, from the last two weeks of February until the end of the season, he becomes unstoppable. He can score goals with anyone on his line, and do it with what is, at times, disconcerting ease. It’s the inconsistency that kills us.

Chris Auger (36 GP, 9-14-23): A
Couldn’t have asked for a better senior season from the kid. He was pretty outstanding.

Matt Ferreira (23 GP, 0-3-3): D
We remember when Matty was a highly-touted freshman recruit with more goals in the OPJHL than you could shake a bundle of sticks at. At Lowell, in 53 careers games, he has five goals and five assists. What happened? (Controversial statement!)

Mike Budd (35 GP, 4-4-8): D+
The phrase, “Oh Christ, it’s Budd,” was uttered more than a few times at the official Tsongas Center seats of TIIL.

Patrick Cey (29 GP, 2-5-7): C-
Nothing about which to be excited, nothing about which to be especially upset. Except the decline in scoring.

Mike Scheu (25 GP, 5-8-13): C+
We will never forget his hilariously soul-crushing overtime goal against Northeastern. In fact, he has a knack for scoring timely goals. We just wish he could stay healthy.

Ben Holmstrom (39 GP, 9-14-23): B-
Solid season outta Benny, but we would’ve loved to see both a little more production given what we were told about his offensive improvement over the summer. Oh well.

Paul Worthington (39 GP, 12-8-20): C
Worthington had the best start of his career, scoring 13 points in 17 games before Christmas. Those math majors out there can figure out, then, that he only scored seven in the remaining 22. Deeply upsetting.

Jonathan Maniff (22 GP, 1-5-6): D
Our displeasure with Maniff has been well-documented and really we’d prefer not to get into it again.

Jason DeLuca (8 GP, 0-0-0): Incomplete
Read the thing we wrote about Sammy D’Agostino.

Defensemen
Jeremy Dehner (34 GP, 6-15-21): A
Best defenseman in the league. Drop in points? Sure, but it was rare to see him get beat and the team was absolute garbage without him.

Steve Capraro (34 GP, 1-1-2): B-
Once again, a no-offense defenseman that ends the year just minus-2 is okay in our books. Plus he got a goal! That might’ve been the highlight of the season.

Tim Corcoran (11 GP, 0-0-0): Incomplete
Not a good go of things for Corcoran this year, which might explain why, despite the D corps missing 25 man-games due to injury, suspension or healthy scratch, he got into less than half of them.

Nick Schaus (37 GP, 4-19-23): C+
His production dropped off considerably in the second half of the season (no goals and only five points after Christmas) but he was strong in his own end, though he did make a few mistakes and he was allegedly one of the reasons Caveney missed so much time. After the incredible first half, it kinda boils down to a slightly-above-average season.

Barry Goers (28 GP, 0-5-5): C
We got more or less exactly what we thought we’d get from Goers. Would’ve liked more but we weren’t really holding our breath. It’s really too bad about the injury.

Maury Edwards (38 GP, 4-11-15): F
There’s no way to spin this: Moe was terrible this season. Just awful. In every zone. There’s nothing about his season that was in any way acceptable given his first two years at Lowell.

Ryan Blair (38 GP, 0-11-11): D+
Disappointing and pretty unexpected. The lack of offense we saw coming, the lack of any kind of ability to defend in most games? Not so much.

Chris Ickert (14 GP, 0-3-3): C+
We thought once Ickert got his feet under him for a few games, he was a perfectly decent offensive defenseman. He was a victim, however, of a couple rookie mistakes and tremendous blue line depth. We’re excited to see what he can do with a full season next year.

Goaltenders
Nevin Hamilton (13 GP, 6-4-2; 2.91, .905): C+
He was very good early in the season, but as the campaign wore on, it became obvious that he should be the backup to Hutton. That disastrous start at Maine kept his stats from being as good as they probably should have been.

Carter Hutton (9 GP, 13-12-2; 2.04, .928): A++
Best Lowell goalie ever. Deserved better than he ever got from this team.

Okay, we’re gonna take a little while off here. Enjoy your summer, thanks for reading, etc. We might check in with a couple posts a month, but don’t count on it.

Final blog stats
150,005 words over:
135 posts (1,111.2 per).
20 weeks (7,500.3 per).
401 pages, single-spaced.

You’re welcome.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2010 9:41 pm

    Thanks for another great job guys. Just sucks that another season ends much too early for our liking.

  2. March 23, 2010 12:08 am

    “Best Lowell goalie ever.”

    Wow, better than Rollie?

    Just because I’m curious, how would you grade the coaching this season?

    • March 23, 2010 12:11 am

      Oh, and for the record I thought Lil’ Cappy’s goal was the highlight of Lowell’s season as well. Great guy. Glad he had such a good career for the Hawks.

  3. March 23, 2010 1:02 am

    Yeah, better than Roloson a Lowell. The numbers bear that out even when you account for the difference in scoring by era.

    As for the coaching grade, we aren’t sure really. Lots of factors to consider. We will discuss it at greater length and get back to you.

    • March 23, 2010 11:27 am

      Just wondering as both of our programs seem to be similar in regards to coaching. Both are headed up by good guys, they seem to over perform when it comes to recruiting but in the end probably aren’t getting the most out of their players for an entire season. Interested to see your view on things with Blaise.

  4. March 23, 2010 3:43 am

    Huntsville to Lowell: Enjoy watching us take on Miami on Saturday. :)

  5. Keith permalink
    September 17, 2010 12:13 pm

    Holla Holla 2011!

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