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Saturday thoughts: What it takes to be a champion

March 23, 2013

Well, they did it. After all these years, and all these obstacles, Lowell is by any measure the finest team in Hockey East.

We’ve learned one hell of a lot from this team over the last six months, and seen the ups and downs and in-betweens, and finally we know for sure that these River Hawks have it in them to gut out not only a 27-game schedule, but also a four-game knockout tournament, all with a sort of disconcerting ease that led most Lowell fans with whom we spoke tonight to say they felt very little in the way of nerves. This, to Lowell fans — and we don’t know how BU supporters felt about the matter — was always going to end up with Lowell taking home its second trophy in three weeks. It just seemed all along that Lowell had the mettle to pass through whatever fire could be laid in front of it, and come out the other side smiling.

So what, exactly, did Lowell have in this game, and throughout this season, that separated it from the mere mortals?

It takes defense. Whatever happened in that weekend sweep by UNH ending back on the first day of December, it caused Lowell to commit completely to playing the kind of dynamic shutdown defense exhibited tonight. The scoresheet says the Terriers got off 36 shots and that sounds just about right, but the number that actually caused Connor Hellebuyck any agita can be counted on one hand, and that’s down to the job Lowell’s defense did of keeping shots to the outside and rebounds swept safely to the corners.

There were times of worry, as you’d expect against a team with talent levels as high as BU’s, and Lowell occasionally found itself scrambling and failing to get the clears they needed. But all went for naught, even as things really opened up considerably in the second period, and you really can’t say enough good things about the job Chad Ruhwedel, Zack Kamrass, Joe Houk, Christian Folin, Jake Suter and Greg Amlong did to instill calm more or less universally throughout the game. Watching the game tonight, you’d have had to think that this group had been Lowell’s steady six all season, but that’s not the case. It really only solidified around mid-February, and after that, a defense that had been very good for months became excellent. In the final 12 games of the season, Lowell conceded 14 goals, and only lost once. You can hang a lot of that on the work these six did in concert.

It takes goaltending. Lowell received nothing but the finest vintage from Connor Hellebuyck not only tonight but for the entirety of this team’s second-half run. He allowed just one goal this weekend on 70 shots, and for his efforts took home the tournament MVP award, as justly deserved as any postseason trophy ever. The old adage that it’s tough to beat a team in Hockey East four times in a season obviously wasn’t one Hellebuyck heard before, because the aplomb with which he handled himself tonight was remarkable.

Again, BU did little to get to the net with regularity, but the occasional ugly rebound he’d been prone to giving up once or so per game was nowhere in evidence tonight. Any nervousness that crept into the game as it wore on without a goal had everything to do with the fact that Lowell hadn’t found a way to beat Sean Maguire. The confidence that Hellebuyck would hold up his end of the bargain was supreme and unflagging.

It takes senior leadership. We’ve said before that this team could have obviously packed it in when it started the year 4-7-1; certainly we’d already begun planning for a long winter. But in all the stuff we read about these remarkable River Hawks this week, one thing that was repeated often was how important senior captain Riley Wetmore was to all of this. He didn’t have a point tonight, or even a blocked shot, but he did lead all Lowell shooters with four shots on goal and was routinely ending his shifts in the attacking zone because with the way he was playing, you knew there was no way he was going to lose this game. Let’s not forget, this wasn’t some piddling game for BU, that ultimately meant relatively little other than the postseason title. This was the last one of Jack Parker’s career, a win-and-you’re-in chance at one last NCAA bid that would, for some, wash away the bad taste that the unfortunate, unforgivable off-ice events of last season left. This was also, perhaps more importantly, also the last chance at a trophy for BU’s seniors, who didn’t win a regular-season title, postseason title, or Beanpot in any of their four years on Comm Ave. But as Wetmore went, so went the River Hawks, starting from the 8-3 win in Amherst all the way through to this grand prize.

Further, we should note that while Colin Wright officially ended the game with zero shots on goal, it was his most notable attempt, just about 3:15 into the third period, that really seemed to give Lowell a feeling that it not only could score, but would do so soon. Stepping out of the penalty box after a questionable boarding call, Amlong threaded a pass by two defenders and sprung Wright for a breakaway, which was rocketed off the post, and from then on, Lowell pressed the attack harder than they did at any other point in the night, attempting 14 shots in the next eight or so minutes before they finally broke through, and it was all thanks to Wright giving them a little bit of belief.

It takes lucky bounces. Let’s consider for a second just how goofy the play that resulted in the game’s only goal really was. It started somewhat slowly on a turnover in the defensive zone, as Derek Arnold and Chad Ruhwedel exchanged a few passes headed up ice and opened up a bit of space for themselves. Arnold was the puck carrier through the neutral zone and into BU’s, and meanwhile, Scott Wilson had broken toward of the ice. Arnold dropped it back to Ruhwedel, who in turn tried to shoot, but it hit Lowell’s sophomore Terrier killer on his skate and wide. In the confusion, Maguire came out a bit too far, and Arnold swooped in and decided to try for a wraparound. The over-commitment from BU’s mediocre freshman netminder was all he needed, and the attempt bounced off Maguire’s glove and into the net with 8:51 to play.

This came after a series of netfront scrambles in the second and third periods which drew a lot of nervous shouts from the partisans in scarlet and white across the way, as Lowell repeatedly tried wraparound stuff-ins, only to be denied repeatedly by sticks and bodies as BU tried frantically to stop Maguire getting too bothered with any of it. Still, the fact that it kept happening was a pretty good reason for Lowell to keep trying it, and eventually Arnold, who led the team in goalscoring last season, was the one who found paydirt.

It takes world-class coaching. It goes without saying, obviously, that Norm Bazin now has to be considered one of the finest coaches in Hockey East, if not the country. If he doesn’t win a Spencer Penrose in a few weeks, the system is irrevocably broken and needs to be put in the garbage with BU’s season. Tonight’s contest saw Lowell’s ideal defensive game plan, executed to perfection. It took the hottest line in the country — Evan Rodrigues, Matt Nieto, and Danny O’Regan — and bottled them up so effectively that they had a mere nine shots between them, a night after combining for 4-2-6 against Boston College. Five of those belonged to Nieto, but if we were asked to recall one of note, we frankly couldn’t do it. Such was the ability to contain the threat from BU’s top line that we were told repeatedly would be so great.

But moreover, look where Bazin has taken this team. Not only from 4-7-1 on Dec. 1, sitting in ninth place with just five points, to tops in the league, 26-10-2 and tournament champions. But also from five wins to 24 to 26 and counting. If you’d told us last season would have been a 10-win season, and this a 15-win run, we’d have taken that running back upon Bazin’s hiring. One thing that stood out to us during his introductory press conference was his insistence that this was a team that could win trophies. That sounded like fantasy, but now it’s come true, and his job as architect of this turnaround makes I.M. Pei look like a mere Louis Kamper. Enough cannot be said about the job he’s done, but we encourage all hockey writers the world over to give it a try.

It takes disappointment. It seems funny to talk about it now but in reality those back-to-back 5-2 gutwrenchers served to Lowell by UNH weren’t all that long ago, and indeed, certainly seemed to stir something in this team that played so abjectly for the first two months of the season. One has to wonder exactly how much those losses stung, in retrospect, and how often Lowell decided to keep their wounds green with reminders of the games in which they played poorly.

Perhaps one of the best things to happen to Lowell all season was losing those two back-to-back games against Merrimack and Maine, because the losses came for such different reasons, and the mistakes made in those were not often repeated for too long a stretch ever since. Bazin said something fairly late in the season, perhaps after the home shutout against Providence, about the importance of reminding guys what they need to work on. That Lowell went on to win 12 of their next 13 after the road sweep by Merrimack and Maine — all but four of which were against nationally-ranked, solid teams — speaks to the steely-eyed determination to not go through times like October and November again.

It takes demons that need exorcising. There are 10 players on Lowell’s roster this season who were also around for the five-win campaign that ended up bringing Bazin into the fold. Most of them played almost every game for the River Hawks this season, and for them to get the monkey off their back so emphatically as they did this season and last must be mind-bending. They won five games as either freshmen or sophomores, and now have racked up 50 in the last two years. It’s almost unimaginable.

Then of course, there’s the events of Hockey East tournaments past that none on this team or coaching staff remember, when BU edged Lowell 1-0 in the 2009 title game on the flimsiest pretenses of fairness. BU also beat Lowell in the only other time it went to the Hockey East title game, in Bazin’s senior season of 1994. It was only ever going to work out this way, with these same two foes dancing again, wasn’t it? But this time, unlike the other two, it was Lowell that came out on top. This time, unlike 2009, it was Lowell on the good side of a 1-0 decision, and it didn’t need help from anyone to get there. This time, the curtain fell on Jack Parker’s career, making the victory all the sweeter. Nothing will ever rob Lowell of this.

It takes a total team effort. In a game featuring just one goal, there has to be a lot of sacrifice. Guys weren’t getting the offensive looks they might have wanted throughout the game, and once Lowell went up a goal, all pretensions to attack more or less vanished for the team. But the amount of hard work put in by everyone from the first line to the bottom pairing was exemplary. Lowell blocked 21 shots in the game, which speaks to just how much BU was pressing throughout, and how little time Lowell had for their efforts nonetheless. But beyond the bumps and bruises that come with diving in the way of shots — exemplified by Wilson laying out to block a big one in the dying moments — there was the extreme physicality that Lowell hasn’t been asked to match in too many contests this season.

BU is always a team that will try to punish its opponents, wearing them down with checks both legal and less-so until they can find a way through the defenses, but Lowell was having approximately none of it. Houk laid a couple of good hard checks along the boards, Wilson absolutely decked Cason Hohmann as he came across the blue line into Lowell’s defensive end, Ryan McGrath (ever the pest) threw his body around liberally despite being probably the smallest player on the ice. BU asked for no quarter as the game opened up, and Lowell was happy to give it exactly that little.

It takes a community. Remember, this team was almost erased from the college hockey landscape around this time just six years ago. Since then, it has taken a massive effort from the chancellor to the athletic department staff to make this team into what it is today. There are so many roads the program could have gone down at different points, but though it never took that big, expected step forward under Blaise MacDonald and still looked like it would be mired in mediocrity with the occasional playacting at greatness, that was all for the best because it brought the program to where it is today. Lowell is now one of the premier hockey schools in the country, and that’s indisputable fact.

And moreover, the fan support this program has received in the last two years has been just outstanding, and was typified tonight, with the Garden decked out in blue, save for the few sections of misguided BU fans who went home upset. The countdown in the game’s final seconds, and the ovation that followed, were deafening. Lowell finished 12th in the country in average attendance this year, at 5,246 people a night. That was up from 4,904 the year before (up 7 percent or so), and you can fully expect those numbers to keep rising next year as well.

Finally, it takes something on the horizon. Lowell’s season wasn’t going to end tonight regardless of whether it won or lost, but as Bazin preaches and this team well knows, you can always be better. Instead of giving up a crap goal to a bad team on Friday, Lowell seemed determined to give up no goals to a good one, and achieved that end. So now it’s on to the NCAA tournament, and a date with Wisconsin in Manchester, where the River Hawks’ mettle can once again be tested, and once again be and proven.

After that there are more games, and maybe more trophies. After that there’s the summer. After that there’s next season. After that, who knows? Fortune favors the bold, they say, and this is a Lowell team built to last, and look into the future not with trepidation or resignedness, but a desire to carry out this team’s manifest destiny. It will become the best because it believes it should be the best. Bazin won’t accept anything less than that.

The Hockey East you knew is dead. This is the dawn of a new day, and nothing is the same. Not any more.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. C Dub permalink
    March 23, 2013 10:23 pm

    Two links that may be of interest:

    This guy seems to be a class act – https://twitter.com/JGillies32/status/315654024416354304

    and…

    This headline is beautiful – http://www.nhl.com/ice/news.htm?id=661814

  2. Steve D permalink
    March 24, 2013 7:41 am

    Absolutely perfectly stated. What a great run this season has been (hopefully it continues onto Pitt). It was phenomenal to see so many alumni, students, and former players prior to the game and in the stands cheering. The social media posts from UML fans and non-fans have been spectacular to see. While this took a long time in the grand scheme of things, it makes it so meaningful for everyone, and was shown in the post-game celebration. Go get one more trophy!

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