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Friday thoughts: Don’t dream it’s over

November 17, 2012

That should, we think, put to rest any notion that Lowell is in some way still a good team that is just struggling to get its feet going in the early part of the season.

The facts are now pretty clear: This is a deeply flawed team, and the season is no longer in its early stages. Lowell has now played six Hockey East games and from them has taken just three points. It is therefore on pace to finish with 13.5 points, which is usually just about good for ninth or 10th place in the league in any given season. And the sad and scary part of it is that of those six games, all but one have been at home. Lowell has just eight home games remaining in its Hockey East schedule, which doesn’t exactly bode well for a team that can’t even win there. Let’s not forget, Lowell lost its home opener last year to BC, then didn’t drop points in another game at Tsongas Center until Maine came to town in mid-February. Lowell now has three losses and a tie in home games, and just six goals in them to show for it.

UNH’s shutout last night was its third in a row, and for the River Hawks, it was the fourth time in five games they were held to two goals or fewer. The word you’re looking for to describe the offense at this point is “gormless.” And Lowell’s season is in some deep, deep trouble as a result.

There’s no real way to explain the problem over the course of the season. The team now looks and plays nothing like the team that drew Vermont or lost 1-0 to BC. Those teams at least dominated possession and made opposing offenses look not-very-good, while also not scoring goals. In this UNH loss, and both games against Maine, the team got pushed around the ice pretty convincingly and showed little in the way of punch, let alone the quality of play that was this team’s benchmark, particularly at home, for the vast majority of last season.

On the radio postgame show, Bob Ellis noted his frustration with the faceoff statistics. Lowell had been getting killed at the dot in most of its more lopsided losses (this certainly fits into that category) but against the Wildcats won 42 of 56 (75 percent!), which is an incredible success rate. But Ellis noted that this doesn’t tell you anything. Lowell may have won 75 percent of the draws, but it conceded 33 shots and mustered just 23. So what do faceoff stats tell us? The answer, in a vacuum, is nothing. You could win 100 percent of the draws in a given night, but when your passing is so terrible, so clearly off the mark that UNH feasts on many of them and take them the other way, or they simply skitter harmlessly to no one, and you lose the race for what suddenly and frustratingly became a 50-50 puck, then that’s a different and much larger issue. NCAA hockey, for various reasons (chief among them being a lack of the necessary bodies), does not track things like giveaways and takeaways, or passing success rates. So Lowell may have won the faceoff battle in a bloodbath, but gaining possession of the puck from that doesn’t always equate to winning games because we don’t know, other than what our eyes tell us, how well the River Hawks managed it once they had it. Unfortunately, our eyes tell us that they managed it as well as Norm Bazin has managed the lines this season. That is, poorly.

Let’s take the time to talk about that, actually. We believe we read something on Twitter last night, possibly from College Hockey News’s Scott McLaughlin, about Lowell having changed at least two of its forward lines in its last five games, which is a little much, especially after last weekend against Maine. Like it or not, the five goals the River Hawks mustered against the Black Bears (which admittedly isn’t a lot) was the most success the offense has had at any point this season, and it was keyed by two lines. The AJ White-Riley Wetmore-Derek Arnold line combined for 3-3-6, and the Ryan McGrath-Joe Pendenza-Josh Holmstrom line went 2-2-4. All of Lowell’s goals and all but two of its assists (both of which were from Chad Ruhwedel) came from those six players. And so the decision to break up the only lines that have worked all season headed into a game against a team riding two — and now three — straight shutouts is troubling to say the least.

The argument in favor of such a decision, of course, is pretty clear. You, a) Don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket, and b) Want to try to kickstart other guys’ production. To that we say, “What eggs?” and “This will all end in tears.” And indeed, in the end, the plan worked out exactly as predicted: It didn’t. Wetmore was given two new linemates in Scott Wilson and Adam Chapie, and the trio combined for two shots, of which Chapie had none. Pendenza was swapped out of his line for Steve Buco, who didn’t register a single shot but he did take a needless hooking penalty. Pendenza, White and Arnold were put together as well, and were arguably Lowell’s most effective line; they had six of Lowell’s 23 shots, and no other forward group had more than four.

Meanwhile, poor Doug Carr continues to receive no help whatsoever from the team in front of him. He stood on his head all night and kept the game even remotely close. The first goal came because Lowell failed to clear it for an extended period (due in part to Wetmore being hobbled by a shot block and essentially playing an entire shift on one leg, and he still broke up a pass or two). Trevor van Riemsdyk’s shot was a very nice one, and it clearly deflated a Lowell bench that had just seconds prior been standing and losing its collective mind over Wetmore’s toughness. The second goal against him came on a two-on-one from a neutral-zone turnover and a beautiful backhand move and shot from Grayson Downing. The third was a who-cares rebound goal when the game was already decided, surrendered yet again by the Lowell penalty kill.

At the other end of the ice, Casey DeSmith was routinely unbothered by what the River Hawks showed him. Those shots that vaguely made him work didn’t actually produce any second chances, much like Carr’s efforts (save for that rebound goal, obviously). Lowell’s effort to go to the net and produce second opportunities with effective shots was one of its hallmarks last year, and that’s been notably absent to this point. The same is true of its foundering forecheck and bewildering breakout, but if you want to pinpoint why the offense is so bad, that’s the reason.

With all that having been said, we don’t know what the answer is. We would love for there to be a switch somewhere deep in the bowels of Tsongas Center that Bazin can throw, and magically make this team the one that crushed opponents with such wonderful regularity last season. We would love for Scott Wilson to begin scoring goals at will. We would love for the penalty kill to be in any way effective more than 75 percent of the time. We would love for this team to figure it all out and actually start living up to the expectations lavished upon it by us and everyone else around Hockey East and the country at large. We can’t see where it happens, though. Maybe Amherst. Maybe not this season. The latter seems far more likely, don’t you think?

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