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Lowell at the Break: All of the lights

December 15, 2011

It’s amazing to think where Lowell has gone already.

At the beginning of the season we were steeling ourselves to deal with something along the lines of a six-win season. It was only natural given Norm Bazin’s warnings that it takes time to improve as a team and rebuild a program decimated by years of almosts that never turned into anything more.

But the River Hawks hit the six-win mark on Nov. 19. Then they kept going. Currently, the team has a 10-5-0 record, Bazin is Hockey East’s Coach of the Year if the season ends today, and certainly this team is the nicest surprise in the nation. No one could be happier about it than us.

With that having been said, maybe we should have seen this coming a little bit. After all, the season opened with a last-second draw in the exhibition, which itself gave way to what we considered to be a pair of winnable if tough games at Minnesota State. But what we didn’t expect is just how laughably easy those games would end up being. To put it plainly, the River Hawks dominated that series. Two wins were nice, but questions still loomed. Perhaps the largest coming out of that weekend was whether its ability to humiliate a bottom-of-the-table WCHA team on the road would translate to Hockey East play.

They didn’t get any easier to answer, either. Just three days after the sweep, Lowell played UConn in Nashua, N.H., of all places, or at least it would have if such a game existed, which it does not. We feel, though, that given Lowell’s short rest between the games in Mankato and the one back east (which never happened) and what might have been a kind of poor performance, the River Hawks would have lost this one in overtime in frustrating fashion. This kind of loss, had it taken place, would have left us with a lot to think about, such as how a team could play so well against a team that almost never gets swept at home, and then so poorly against a team that is UConn.

And things didn’t get any easier the next week. Not with No. 1 Boston College coming to Tsongas Center for the home opener. This was the start of a brutal first half of the league schedule for Lowell. Before the Christmas break, it was to play BC in a home-and-home, engage in a one-and-done affair with BU, go to Orono for a pair with Maine, visit UNH, host Amherst, play another home-and-home with UNH, entertain BC again and close out the semester at Northeastern. Anyone who saw last year’s team would say this was a tough ask, and really, it didn’t even seem fair. Three with UNH and BC? Two at Maine? What sadist put this schedule together?

But a funny thing happened. Yeah, Lowell lost its first league game to BC 4-2 (really 3-2 with an empty-netter), but it very much dictated the game to the top-ranked team in the country. It dominated in shots and possession and chances, but the difference was that BC finished off the meager few it got and Lowell allowed the vast majority of its own to go by the boards. Things were more than a little different the next night in Chestnut Hill, though, as a bad start for Lowell put it so far behind the 8-ball that even a good third period couldn’t dig it out of the significant hole it had dug for itself. It was at once a frustrating and encouraging weekend. Frustrating because obviously Lowell earned no points despite playing as well as or better than the Eagles for four or five periods, and encouraging for that last bit about playing as well as or better than the Eagles at all. Lowell probably played about four or five periods all of last season in which it bossed around its opponents like it did against BC, and BC’s not exactly Providence or Vermont of last year.

Those losses, tough though they may have been to swallow (and the first moreso than the second), seemed to have a talismanic effect on the team, though. It now seemed to believe in itself despite the three-game losing streak. And as highly-regarded Boston University came to town, people wondered aloud just how ugly things would get, given that the Terriers had taken three of four points from a similarly-regarded Amherst team the week before. But what neutral, skeptical observers had hardly counted on was that it would be the River Hawks who clubbed their opponents in the game. After conceding the opening goal just 16 seconds into the game, Lowell scored seven unanswered and the Terriers skulked from the building like dejected toddlers.

And while the win was certainly encouraging, there was still a bit of head-scratching to do. Was the team that conceded 10 in two games to BC going to show up for the two-game series in Maine, or was the team that potted seven against BU going to make an appearance. Turns out, it was a Lowell team that leaned far more toward the latter than the former, as it swept the Black Bears in Orono for the first time in nearly three decades and all of a sudden had a three-game winning streak on its hands. Six points from five Hockey East games and as many wins as it had all last season by Nov. 12? What was going on here?

But Lowell, it seems, is so far this year given to disappointing performances in games immediately following big successes. It did it against UConn (or would have had the game existed, which it doesn’t, obviously) and here it did it against UNH, getting shut out 5-0. But at the same time, this loss seemed to have been enough to sway Norm Bazin toward a move we’d been calling for over the last few weeks: Installing Doug Carr as the team’s No. 1 starter. And that’s when things really took off.

First, Carr and the River Hawks followed up their dismal Durham performance with a 4-0 beatdown of Amherst in Lowell, and the next week followed it up with another shutout at home, this time 3-0 over a hopelessly overmatched Alabama-Huntsville. Now granted these were easy wins against very bad teams (at the time they had a combined four wins) but points are points, and Lowell was playing encouraging hockey: it was both scoring and preventing goals. In fact, it was doing the latter so well that it allowed just 36 shots on goal in those two games and allowed Carr to read a couple Dostoyevsky novels in his ample free time.

Beating bad sides is easy when you’re like the River Hawks, which had proven themselves to be among the better teams in college hockey over the course of the first two months of the season. It’s beating the good teams — particularly the ones that had already beaten you — that mattered now. So the next weekend, when Lowell hosted UNH, people had finally decided that those games would be The Barometer for whether the ‘Hawks were as good as their record. After all, Maine had fallen off considerably since getting swept in Orono and that to the doubters, that left just one extremely lucky win over BU as a testament to whether Lowell was any good at all.

To its credit, Lowell seemed not wholly interested in allowing the naysayers any room to breathe, as it ran the game from start to finish at Tsongas Center on Friday and weathered a hellacious first-period storm the following night in Durham to sweep the weekend and, at last, prove how “for real” they were to the world at large. The next weekend, a similar win over BC further helped to cement that reputation. But that was then diminished by a regrettable first half-ending loss the next night to Northeastern, though one would be well within their rights to chalk that up to a bad coaching decision rather than an indictment of the team itself.

That brings us to today, with a 10-5 team looking at a much softer back half the schedule, particularly when it comes to Hockey East play. Lowell has seven games left against the teams occupying spots 7-10 in the standings, including four at home. And given the performances it has given the fans in recent weeks, there’s no reason to believe Lowell shouldn’t at least compete for a home ice spot.

But it won’t be easy. One could make the argument that teams took Lowell lightly, particularly at first, before it had really proven itself. And, having taken this many points so far, it might be in tough to keep up that pace. But we’ve seen enough of these River Hawks to know that on their best nights, no team in the league can skate with them, even with more attention now being paid to how to beat them.

It’s arguable that Lowell is now the most talked-about team in the league, and the River Hawks need to keep the pedal floored for the final 16 games of the Hockey East schedule. They need to make everyone see how good they truly are.

First semester 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 five 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 (10 GP, 0-1-1): D
Frankly this has been a tough season for a player we quite liked as a freshman and whose production dropped off a cliff when he became a sophomore. Now the only time we notice him is mostly when he makes a mistake, or serves someone else’s penalty. We’d really love to see him start scoring a little here in the second half. We know he’s capable of it.

Colin Wright (10 GP, 0-1-1): C-
The same is true of Wright, who we thought was nearly as good as Riley Wetmore in their freshman years. He’s steady and he has a role that he does well enough, but with the team scoring this much, we’d have liked to see a kid who netted seven in 35 as a freshman pop in his first goal in 40 games.

Terrence Wallin (15 GP, 3-7-10): B+
There are times when Wallin looks absolutely dominant, and there are times when you see that he’s perhaps trying to do a bit too much. The former far outweigh the latter so far, and we’re willing to chalk those more troubling moments up to rookie mistakes and all that. We think this kid has a very promising career ahead of him at Lowell and we look forward to seeing a few more goals in the back half.

David Vallorani (15 GP, 5-8-13): B
Ah, Vallorani. When he’s on, like he was in the most recent BC game, every eye in the arena turns to him on every shift, and the opposition have no answer for him. But when he’s off, he tries to go through four guys, falls over and loses the puck at the slightest contact. As a result, it’s often frustrating to watch. Luckily this year has seen him turn in far more good performances than bad, and now he’s only two points away from 100 in his career. If he doesn’t get them in that UConn tournament, we’re going to riot.

Stephen Buco (12 GP, 1-6-7): C+
He came in with a fantastic scoring pedigree in a not-great junior league and has to this point shown flashes of that touch. Not every night and certainly not every shift, but every once in a while, you’ll watch him in the offensive zone and say, “Oh, THERE it is.” We’re fine with what we’ve seen so far, but we’d like more of those revelatory moments.

Josh Holmstrom (15 GP, 3-4-7): B-
We quite like Josh Holmstrom as a general rule and more or less felt that he was the all-around best freshman forward last season. And after going goalless in that rookie campaign, he’s netted three already this year. We’ve seen him score in bunches (five of his seven points came in three consecutive games) but now we’d like to see him score more consistently.

Joe Pendenza (15 GP, 4-9-13): A-
Pendenza occasionally exhibited his insane speed and good finish last season but this time around, it seems like every time he gets on the scoresheet, the goal he either scored or created is a big one. What a fun player to watch.

Riley Wetmore (15 GP, 7-7-14): A-
If not for the occasional bouts of invisibility, Wetmore would probably be our favorite River Hawk. He’s lethal around the net and generally has an extremely positive influence on the game for the River Hawks. Sometimes, though, we think he tries to do it all and doesn’t succeed. But that’s at least a noble type of failure, right?

Matt Ferreira (15 GP, 7-8-15): A+
Nobody’s play has delighted us more than Matt Ferreira’s this season. He has 15 points in as many games after scoring just 27 in his first 85 contests in a Lowell sweater. If you’d have told us he’d be tops on the team in points and second in goals at the break, we’d have called you a liar. But we’re very pleased indeed to have that be the case. He’s been a huge part of the River Hawks’ success this year.

Mike Budd (15 GP, 3-1-4): C
He contributes the odd goal and solid defensive play. This is more or less what we expect out of Budd, no more, no less. Perfectly fine with what he’s provided in a support role.

Scott Wilson (14 GP, 6-7-13): A-
What a wonderfully skilled debut for this, Lowell’s first drafted player in years. We had pretty strong expectations for him and he’s more or less lived up to them, but like Wetmore and Wallin, we think he very occasionally tries to do more than he should. But that is, as with Wetmore and Wallin, the only complaint we can come up with, and it’s not a very big one at all.

Derek Arnold (15 GP, 8-5-13): A
How about the DA? Leads the team in goals and usually looks pretty good doing it. He’s the real triggerman on that ultra-potent Vallorani-Wetmore-Arnold line and top power play unit, and is excellent at his job. Having eight goals already after scoring just two as a freshman? We think he has perhaps enjoyed the switch to the new system more than any other forward.

Defensemen
Malcolm Lyles (14 GP, 0-4-4): D+
Put plainly, we’ve been disappointed in Lyles. His flashes of strong play are few and far between (though to be fair, he was the best player on the ice in what would have been the UConn game, if that counts for anything), and his rough giveaways and questionable decisions are more or less omnipresent. We see that he has the tools to be a good defenseman in this league, and that makes the fact that he’s not all the more discouraging.

Chad Ruhwedel (15 GP, 2-12-14): A+
This is by far our favorite River Hawk, and not just because he’s scoring like crazy from the blue line. He does everything and he does it exceptionally after being the team’s best D-man last year. He is in every way the new Jeremy Dehner, but bigger and meaner. We think that’s just about the highest compliment we can give a Lowell defenseman. We’re still waiting for a single opposing player to beat him one-on-one, and watching him play, we get the feeling we’ll be waiting a while. What a player. If he’s not first-team All-Hockey East, it’s going to be a complete outrage. We really can’t say enough good things.

Tim Corcoran (10 GP, 1-2-3): C+
Corcoran has been fine and doesn’t often put his team in a bad position. He’s like the defensive Mike Budd in that he does everything you want him to and that’s it. That’s perfectly fine by us.

Dan Furlong (13 GP, 1-2-3): B-
After last season we didn’t have the best opinion of Furlong, though now we’re starting to think that was more a product of how awful the team was. You’d never mistake him for a top-pairing guy, but teams need second- and third-pairing guys too, don’t they? This season, he has pleasantly surprised us more often than not.

Billy Eiserman (12 GP, 0-1-1): C
This is a C that’s trending way, way up. We thought he was just brutal to start the season but as the year has gone on, we’ve grown to quite like his game and we find him to be pretty reliable. If we were just grading on his last handful of games, we’d be far more likely to give him a higher grade. He’s really adapted to the college game after a shaky start. We’re fans.

Zach Kamrass (12 GP, 0-1-1): C+
It’s really unfortunate that he got hurt because, as with Eiserman, we were starting to feel pretty good about his contribution. We thought he was especially effective in Maine and though he doesn’t yet have a goal at this level, with a shot like his, we have to feel like he’ll get one soon.

Jake Suter (15 GP, 0-0-0): B+
Where did this kid come from? It’s our understanding that he was a late add to the roster (we want to say we heard he was coming aboard in August or so) but we cannot for the life of us figure out why. There should have been a line of teams out the door and around the block to get a defensive defenseman of this caliber. He does so much good in his own zone and has made his living blocking every shot that comes from his side of the ice. We love players like this. We love Jake Suter.

Goaltenders
Doug Carr (11 GP, 9-2-0; 1.82, .934): A+
What would you like us to say about this guy that the numbers don’t? Look at them. Just look. He has just two losses this year and in those he’s given up a COMBINED five goals. It’s honestly beyond belief. And the best part — or at least the most interesting — is that he does it so quietly. How many highlight reel, bring-em-out-of-their-seats saves has he made this season? A handful maybe? He’s just so square to everything, gives up few rebounds (almost none of them dangerous) and never has us or his teammates worried. This is maybe the best single-half stretch we’ve seen from a Lowell goaltender in a decade.

Okay, we’re gonna take a little while off here. Enjoy your holidays and check back for a tournament preview a few days after Christmas.

Blog stats at the half
52,962 words over:
53 posts (999.3 per).
11 weeks (4,814.7 per).
103 pages, single-spaced.

You’re welcome.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Monty permalink
    December 16, 2011 4:16 pm

    Great job with the grades, hard to argue any of them. I can’t wait for the second half to start…

  2. Don't Worry About It permalink
    December 16, 2011 8:19 pm

    Not that grades mean a whole heck of a lot, but the Lyles grade seems unnecessarily rough. You can see the kid has all the physical tools to be a good player. He may have just needed a semester to reacquaint himself with the college game. If he wasn’t so hyped on message boards, would this grade be this low? I seriously doubt it. d

    • RHHB permalink
      December 18, 2011 9:53 am

      As a general rule we take anything anyone ever says on “message boards” with about as little salt as humanly possible.

      More to the point, we don’t believe the physical tools are what was lacking this year, but rather the mental ones. Too many bad decisions. That’s our big problem.

  3. Adam permalink
    January 4, 2012 3:01 am

    I thought that Lyles grade was pretty generous. Not sure you guys are giving Budd enough credit. He does so many little things well that are just needed for the team to control the pace. “Above Average” Michael Budd has a nice ring, how about a C+?

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