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Lowell at the Break: No sign I don’t do ’em

December 15, 2012

The story of this Lowell season so far is a very strange one. Usually when a team has been very up and down in its performances for any stretch of time, commenters will note that it is very much “Jekyll and Hyde.” However, in this regard, Lowell having two distinct personalities — one good, one very, very bad — doesn’t begin to describe the situation. We think that, to better understand the way in which this team has performed this season, it’s important to look at it through the prism not of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella, but rather the 1957 Academy Award-winning film, “The Three Faces of Eve.”

In that film, a woman with dissociative identity disorder has three distinct identities: Eve White, a diffident and obedient housewife; Eve Black, an archly evil psychopath who tries to murder her own daughter; and Jane, a safe balance between the two who can exist safely and happily in society. (Spoiler alert, we suppose.) Lowell has played very much like each of those three identities in different games over the course of the season, rarely mixing an Eve White game with, say, a Jane game. Much to the frustration of all involved, with the obvious exception of most of their opponents.

Let’s start with the most obvious point where Lowell’s troubles began: The season opener against Vermont. This was very much an Eve White game, as even though the River Hawks dramatically outshot their vastly inferior opponents, there was, to put it nicely, no “jam” around the net whatsoever. We understand that it was not until several weeks after this game that Norm Bazin would admit that perhaps the team did indeed buy into its own hype, but this was very much the first sign. Only taking one point from Vermont, the worst team in the league the last two years, in a 1-1 draw in front of a sellout crowd was a serious sign of trouble that no one wanted to acknowledge, and it was all because, hey, it’s only one game, right?

Of course, the Eve White team didn’t show its face again for a while, but it came back with a vengeance against Boston College in the team’s next home game. In that game, Lowell again allowed just one goal, but this time netted just none. But this, too, was dismissed as the team’s having run into what was inarguably the best team in the country/the reigning national champions/the best NCAA hockey program of the last decade. And at least they gave them a game. But at this point a worrying trend was forming. Taking into account the Vermont game, and the results out in Colorado, Lowell had just four goals against actual goaltenders, and that was a trend that continued for some time.

Lowell actually won its next Eve White game, though. A 2-1 result against Maine, arguably the worst school in Hockey East this season (though we’d lean more toward Northeastern, personally), was all well and good, but the same signs of significant trouble loomed. The defense was once again staunch, even if it continued its stretch of horrible penalty killing, but it wasn’t the most convincing two points ever won in Lowell history.

The thing with these games isn’t so much that Lowell was bad. In fact, it often wasn’t bad at all. But there’s a world of difference between not playing poorly and playing well. It’s not that the problems persisted on offense, obviously. But that, in itself, was a point of concern because if the defense ever went away then Lowell was going to be in a whole hell of a lot of trouble.

That’s what happened in pretty much all of the Eve Black games. The offense, obviously, stayed away, and the defense went off and joined it. The Denver game is a pretty good example of this. Lowell hung in there for a good long while but was clearly taking on water against a vastly superior opponent, and when the hull was finally fully breached, the River Hawks sank rather quickly. We often point out that though Connor Hellebuyck gave up five goals in two periods, the Denver announcers had nothing but nice things to say about his performance until the team started taking too many penalties and bleeding goals on the PK. Three goals against in less than two minutes will always turn a game from winnable to a joke, obviously, but this was a game that we felt was closer to being 5-1 than it was to being 2-1.

Eve Black appeared again eight days later when BC pummeled Lowell 6-3 at Conte Forum, and that score makes it sound closer than it was. Another completely unacceptable performance for a team against one of the elite teams in the country this season from one that was supposed to have been elite itself. Now, this was clearly a problem that plagued the River Hawks all year, given that its first three meetings with top-level teams all resulted in losses, two of the “ugly” variety. And that, too, continued into the three-game stretch of Eve Black games against UNH.

To sum the abysmal season series against the Wildcats would be to cast ourselves into a pit of literal despair and unhappiness, and thus we will forego it, but suffice it to say that it’s still kind of strange to us to think the ‘Hawks even scored four goals across those three games. It sure doesn’t feel like it should have been anywhere near that many.

But between that loss to BC at the Heights and the three to UNH (two of which were at Tsongas Center) was Lowell’s obvious candidate for “most disappointing loss of the year,” when the ‘Hawks dropped a 4-3 decision to Maine at home. This is one that will need to be explored in great depth in order to clarify exactly why this, and not, say, the 3-0 loss to UNH a week later, in which the team put out the absolute minimum effort they could have beyond remembering to wear skates. The fact is that even if Lowell’s not among the elites of college hockey this season, and it isn’t, it should be able to flatten Maine every time out, given that Maine was giving up goals by the barrel and scoring next to none. Some said in the wake of that loss that at least they scored three, but three was the minimum expectation, even a night after scoring just two in a win. Giving up four was the ultimate sign of deep, deep flaws, and one that, even following the two shutouts to close the first half, we’re still not convinced has been sorted out.

The thing with the Eve Black games, as compared to those of the Eve White variety, is that we’re not sure what goes wrong. When the team is playing well but not scoring, the reasons for it are obvious: They’re settling for easy shots on goal from the perimeter, which don’t generate rebounds and don’t trouble the goalie. They’re not going hard to the net. They’re not cycling for extended periods. They’re breaking the puck out as if it’s the first time they’ve ever done it. They’re flubbing passes. They’re looking generally discombobulated. But at least the problem begins and ends once they cross the red line into the attacking half of the ice. When the team is playing poorly, it’s doing everything wrong. In addition to the above listed problems, they’re also losing guys in coverage, getting themselves out of position and getting their doors blown off, conceding breakaways and odd-man rushes in far too great a number, and giving up goals on saves that should be made. They’re taking too many penalties. They’re not doing anythings on the ones they draw themselves. Put more concisely, pretty much everything goes wrong.

Which brings us finally to the Jane games, of which there are just five. These are the games in which Lowell was more or less the comprehensive and impressive Lowell we remembered from last year, the one that led everyone to believe it was capable of big things this year. Only two actually came against what you would call comparable competition — teams with which Lowell is on a relatively similar level — but Lowell won both with some amount of relative comfort. The first was obviously in Colorado College, in which the team won 3-1, but essentially dictated the game from front to back. It wasn’t that it was especially impressive in attack, but the meager few chances it did get, it buried with the kind of lethality that typified many of last season’s outings.

It took nearly a month for the team to turn in another broadly convincing victory, but that was of course its emphatic win at Amherst just two days after being embarrassed on home ice by UNH for the first time. From where we sit, that was simply a product of a month’s worth of frustration being taken out on an Amherst team dumb enough to underestimate anyone, given its own quality. Running out a third-string goalie against a team that swept you by a combined score of 13-4 the year prior seems rather shortsighted, and Lowell made it pay, as we had hoped. Then came the Princeton game, and while the goals didn’t exactly rain on the Tigers, they did pile up just enough to see the River Hawks pick up a sweatless W, backed by Connor Hellebuyck.

We almost considered calling the Northeastern win an Eve White game, just because of how dire Lowell was in attack for most of the night. But what separates this one from, say, the win over Maine, which looked very similar, is that we never got the feeling that Lowell would actually lose. Perhaps that’s just a product of our familiarity with the seemingly depthless ineptitude the Huskies bring to each game, which in turn led to us checking our watches waiting for Lowell to put in the game’s first goal. And, as the contest stretched on, it became apparent pretty quickly that it was all the team needed. Again, it’s not that there weren’t problems in this game, nor in the trip to Harvard that followed it, but you never really got the sense that the niggling issues the team faced at various points in it would ever amount to much of anything for its opponents.

As to that Harvard game, well, that was just about everything the team could have asked for, though detractors are careful to note that the Crimson were short three regular defenseman. But let us assure you that if those three kids, who were themselves of varying levels of quality, were in the lineup, Lowell still would have won by multiple goals. The Harvard attack couldn’t get a thing going because Lowell was collapsing around the net just as effectively as it did last year, sweeping away even the juiciest rebounds Hellebuyck conceded. And obviously it was pretty much unstoppable when it got looks at the net. The three goals from the blue line, and two on the power play, were things Lowell sorely needed all year, and the fact that they showed up now could be a significant buoy to the team’s confidence headed into break.

Because of all this disparity, Lowell now finds itself very much at a crossroads, with some very serious decisions to make. Perhaps it’s in some ways unfair to constantly compare this year’s team and its overall lack of performance to what last year’s squad, which had an arguably worse (or at least shallower) lineup overall, given the amount of expectations heaped upon it; the non-literal “Target On Its Back.” Teams seemed to be gunning for the River Hawks in the early going, and the obviously very-tough slate, which to our recollection climbed to fourth-highest in terms of strength of schedule as recently as the UNH sweep, didn’t make things easier.

For evidence of just how disparate things have been for Lowell this year, let’s look at this from the perspective of pure wins and goals. In Eve White games, Lowell is 1-1-1, having scored and conceded three goals each. As we said, when you’re giving up three goals in three games, that’s really good, but when you’re only putting up that many, you can’t expect to win most nights. In Eve Black games, the River Hawks are an appalling 0-6-0, giving up 28 goals (4.67 a night!) and scoring just 11 (1.83). We will again grant that these games, apart from the one against Maine, came against perhaps the staunchest competition in the country, but nonetheless, those stats show Lowell had no business being in the same building as the teams that beat them. Then obviously there are the Jane games,

This crossroads is interesting because it, like Lowell’s season before it, has three distinct paths. The first is to continue at the current level. Not great, but good enough against bad teams that it’s going to win the majority of nights. The stat we’ve trumpeted for weeks is that Lowell is 0-6-0 against top-three teams, and 6-1-1 against everyone else, and that is illuminating, but it’s also not good enough. The fact is, though, that Lowell’s schedule the rest of the way doesn’t seem that tough. One left with BC, three with BU, and a bunch against the chaff of Hockey East. This is a level at which we think the River Hawks should play at the absolute minimum.

Then of course, there’s the likelihood that Lowell rises to the occasion in the second half and makes a bold dash for a home ice spot which still seems so far away and unreachable, given the number of road games left on the schedule. It’s certainly capable and, again, given the quality of opponent and amount of confidence the team should have now, having won three of the last five, we wouldn’t be shocked to see it happen.

Finally, the team can also regress back to what it was in the depths of its doldrums this season, when it six of eight between Oct. 19 and Nov. 16. We think this is the least-likely scenario, just given that they are very much out of the darkest and most foreboding part of the woods. But it is still theoretically possible, especially if Doug Carr doesn’t rebound like we think he can.

To be perfectly honest with you, when we started writing this season, we did not envision a reality in which we would be comparing this team to the central character in an influential and excellent movie about DID, and yet here we are. We don’t like it, or the results so far this season. We hope that in the latter case, the team doesn’t either.

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 (14 GP, 1-2-3): B-
This is maybe the best hockey Shayne Thompson has played in his career. He’s not exactly piling up the points, nor do we expect him to, but he’s used in every situation for a reason, and that is that he’s a solid defensive forward with a good-ish shot when he can get it off. And with 26 shots so far this season, he’s doing that fairly effectively. We’d love to see a little more in the second half though.

Colin Wright (10 GP, 0-0-0): C-
Wright’s best game of the season was his first, and he’s been sporadic since then, to be a little kind. We don’t really expect very much from him in terms of offense for obvious reasons (he has four goals in the last three seasons after scoring seven as a freshman), but he needs to do more to even earn a solid spot in the lineup which, given the way the team has played at times this year, isn’t exactly encouraging.

Terrence Wallin (13 GP, 1-3-4): D+
We thought rather a lot of Wallin last season, especially when taking his explosive second half. He didn’t really make much of a step forward. Far fewer good games so far this season, which led to his being benched against Amherst, and sparked a bit of a resurgence. His goal against Princeton — though we suppose we don’t have to qualify it as having been “against Princeton” because it’s his only one of the season — was gorgeous, and he added a pair of assists two games later, but he seems to just be finding himself again offensively. He’s one of the three or four forwards that Lowell really needs to step up going forward, but this was a very disappointing start.

Ryan McGrath (14 GP, 2-4-6): B
We have very little bad to say about McGrath except to say that he seems to be dislodged from the puck a little too easily at times, probably given his size. With that having been said, we think he’s a perfectly good forward who possesses a lot of skill and good vision. This was a decent start but, and we’re going to say this a lot, we suspect, more would be preferable.

Stephen Buco (8 GP, 3-0-3): B-
Another guy who’s been in and out of the lineup this season, but has recently found his niche with Wallin and Scott Wilson, and in the last three games they’ve been the best line for Lowell every night. Something to build on, but still nothing too spectacular.

Josh Holmstrom (14 GP, 4-6-10): A
Holmstrom has arguably been Lowell’s best all-around forward since the very beginning of the season, whether it was him scoring the lion’s share of the team’s goals in the first few games or his continued ability to be a strong defensive presence. His partnership with Joe Pendenza is something that has confounded opposing defenses, and the scoring is right about where we’d have expected it to be. Nothing to complain about here.

Adam Chapie (8 GP, 0-0-0): C
This is a kid who’s getting into the lineup in streaks. Two games here, three there, another three in the most recent stretch.  It’s hard to say what he brings in attack other than another option. Only two shots on goal in eight games played, but at least he’s not getting outscored when he’s on the ice for the most part. Tough to form a complete opinion.

Joe Pendenza (14 GP, 6-5-11): B+
Like Holmstrom, this kid is often one of Lowell’s biggest threats in the offensive zone, but he really hasn’t shown what we thought made him so special last year (his blazing speed and league-best ability to forecheck), at least not for prolonged stretches. His having six goals to lead the team is all well and good — can’t complain when no one else is putting it in the net either — but we just feel like there’s a fifth gear he hasn’t found yet. When he does, though, look out.

Riley Wetmore (14 GP, 5-2-7): C-
This has not been a good first half for the senior captain. Not by any measure. Five goals is about where he should be, by our figuring, but accepting an average goal output (60 percent of which came in one game) doesn’t seem like something we should do given that he had 39 points in 38 games last season. Let’s put it this way: if we told you in October that Wetmore would have just seven points at the break, would you have been happy with that? Of course not. Nor should he be content with this.

AJ White (7 GP, 0-4-4): B
We find it odd that White has only gotten into seven games this season, because we’ve always found him to be a perfectly good role player who can put up the occasional point (as evidenced by his decentish points-per-game). Given that he had three points in four games, but then sat the last five, we have to assume he’s been injured or something. With a team this starved for offense, that would really be a help.

Scott Wilson (14 GP, 3-9-12): C-
Let’s just say the only thing keeping him from getting a flat-out “F” is his explosive scoring in the last six games. He has 11 points in that stretch, and Lowell is 4-2 in it, which is tough to complain about, but that also means that despite being the team’s leading scorer, he started with one point in eight games, and for a player this good, that’s awful. We don’t know if it speaks worse of the team that he’s the leading scorer despite having not started scoring until mid-November, or him for having squandered the first quarter season. The insane pace needs to continue for us to be fully satisfied.

Michael Fallon (8 GP, 0-3-3): C
Perfectly fine player, but a pretty good indicator of where the coaching staff feels he’s at is that he hasn’t gotten into too many games against good opponents. Of his eight appearances this season, he only faced two decent teams (Denver after a strong opening-night performance against Vermont, and UNH after he helped dismantle Amherst and Princeton). The rest have not been very good, and we’d like to see more of his development in the second half, since Lowell’s more or less done playing respectable squads.

Michael Colantone (9 GP, 4-0-4): B+
If we recall them all correctly, we think his four goals this season were all of the “rather nice” variety, but we’d perhaps like to see a bit more in the way of an all-around game. We’re not in any way against the kid’s performance to this point, given that he’s right near the top of the team’s goals column, which has been oddly deserted this season, but the River Hawks have been better when he’s not on the ice, and for a freshman, that’s something.

Derek Arnold (14 GP, 2-7-9): C-
He has three points in his last two games, but for a kid who had 17 goals last year, having two in 14 now is baffling and upsetting, and that needs to change in a hurry. Lately he hasn’t been getting the puck to the net at nearly the rate he did at the beginning of the year, and that’s something that needs to change as soon as possible if he wants to help buoy a second-half resurgence. And he better want that.

Defensemen
Chad Ruhwedel (14 GP, 1-4-5): B+
Defensively, Ruhwedel has been as solid as ever. When the puck is in his zone, he is still arguably the best in Hockey East at stomping out opponents’ scoring chances, but the fact of the matter is that at this time last year, he had 14 points, and the fact that he’s nine back of that is problematic for two reasons. First, obviously, he’s not driving the offense like he did last year, and second, the whole team isn’t scoring. To see him a plus-4 despite facing the toughest competition in the league is still great, but it could be much higher if only the offensive aspect of his game showed its face.

Joe Houk (10 GP, 0-1-1): C-
A quick look at his numbers at Hamilton would have led us to believe Houk would, y’know, score. He hasn’t yet. He has at times looked like he could do it in the right circumstances, but we have to confess we’ve been a bit disappointed to not see more than one point out of the kid. He’s okay in his own zone and hits like a truck (occasionally to the team’s detriment because he takes a lot of penalties) but we cannot help but think the team was counting on him to put up points from the blue line. The jump from Division 3 to an elite Division 1 conference can’t be easy, but he really needs to pick it up.

Dan Furlong (9 GP, 0-0-0): C-
We were, frankly, astonished to see Furlong had played nine games this season. We’ve always considered him a perfectly fine defenseman who could have occasional bouts of offensive excellence, and while we’ve more or less gotten the former, the latter still eludes him. No points isn’t good enough, and we think everyone can agree there.

Dmitry Sinitsyn (8 GP, 2-0-2): C-
Maybe it was all the hype the kid got when he arrived on campus, but we’re not sure what to think here. We know he’s very, very young. We know he missed a year of competitive hockey at a critical age for development. We’re willing to wait and see. But we don’t know why he’s been in and out of the lineup so often, or why he hasn’t uncorked that gorgeous shot (we saw it at Harvard. It is g-o-r-g-e-o-u-s.) more often. A little more time in the oven might do the kid good, but we’re still waiting on all the potential.

Greg Amlong (5 GP, 0-1-1): C+
Perfectly solid defenseman about whom we have almost no other opinion one way or the other. One supposes there’s a good reason he’s only gotten into five games, and he hasn’t exactly blown our doors off when he has, but we don’t think he’s been bad by any stretch of the imagination.

Christian Folin (11 GP, 0-2-2): A
If there’s one player on this team that’s really impressed us so far this year, it’s Folin. We mentioned it last week but he’s now more or less the team’s second-best defenseman, which is not a thing we anticipated saying in October. Boy does this kid do a lot of things well. As with just about everyone else on the blue line, we’d like to see more offense, especially because he can bomb the puck, but we’re happy with where he’s at so far.

Zach Kamrass (14 GP, 0-1-1): D
We know he didn’t exactly start last season as a house of fire, but we figured his massive second half, which singlehandedly earned him an All-Rookie Team slot, would be something upon which he could build. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. No offense, good-but-not-great defense. This has been a step back from what he did in the final 20 games last year, at a time when the team can least afford it.

Jake Suter (14 GP, 1-1-2): B+
A cool thing about GoRiverHawks.com is that its player pages list blocked shots. Suter has 27 this season, and the next closest is Scott Wilson(!?) at 18. Now, we can have a lengthy discussion about what that says about his ability to control the puck — without NCAA Corsi stat tracking, which will never happen, we won’t have a good idea of what any of it means — but the fact is that he’s an elite shotblocker, the kind of guy you need on your team to devour hard minutes. Plus he scored a goal. Who doesn’t love Jake Suter?

Goaltenders
Doug Carr (11 GP, 3-6-1; 2.74, .902): C-
Let’s just say an overly generous grade from one TIIL member saved this from being a rather ugly report card for Carr, who can’t in any way be happy with his performance to start the season. The team hasn’t been scoring goals, and struggled on the PK, but a 2.74 GAA and a .902 save percentage is plainly not good enough from this kid, who was regularly described as one of the best netminders in the nation. Our fear is that this is a return toward his freshman form, that last year was a nearly-season-long fluke, but we think he’s been victimized, to some extent, by some hard luck. We believe he’ll bounce back, but this was a first half to forget.

Connor Hellebuyck (5 GP, 3-1-0; 1.68, .939): B+
By contrast, Hellebuyck had one truly abominable statistical performance and has otherwise feasted on bad competition. The stats tell the story, at least somewhat, but a look at the list of opponents doesn’t exactly make you think he’s Lowell’s next great goaltender just yet. We love what we’ve seen so far, and would like to see it continue.

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

Blog stats at the half
47,160 words over:
46 posts (1,025 per).
11 weeks (4,287 per).
91 pages, single-spaced.

You’re welcome.

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