Postmortem: Dancing, dancing
We will never forget the conversations we had at Harvard.
In talking with a handful of Lowell fans in the time before the puck dropped and the River Hawks romped to a laughable 5-0 win in Connor Hellebuyck’s second career start, we all pretty much agreed that while the playoffs were certainly something Lowell could reach with ease, and while it had just beaten Northeastern, this was not a team built to live up to lofty expectations.
The team had by that point pretty well established a clear pattern: Beat the bad teams far more often than not, and get creamed by the good ones. We took solace in the fact that Lowell only had BC once more in the remaining few months of the regular season, and BU three times, but other than that the schedule wasn’t so bad, and certainly was conducive to the team clawing back into the home ice conversation if they got especially hot.
We had no idea, though, that the team would or could get as hot as it did. Lowell went out from that Monday night, when it became the winners of two shutouts in a row, and only lost four more games for the rest of the season, with none of them really amounting to very much save for that last one. That one was a biggie.
This team we said could, oh sure, sweep Northeastern or maybe take one from BU, became, by way of a goaltending switch, nigh-indomitable and transformed into the hottest team in the country which none dared face if they could avoid it. Things that we would just a month earlier have dreaded — a four-game road trip to Clarkson and Vermont, for instance — became sick, sad jokes, the punchlines for which were all Lowell victories, but didn’t induce too many smiles from any but us.
With that power to decimate opposing teams, exhibited liberally by Lowell for pretty much the entire final 29 games of the season, comes great expectation, which seemed to suit the team fine. In retrospect it appeared as though all the reasons the team had difficulties in the first half of the season were glaringly obvious, and all evaporated when the second rolled around.
For one thing, whatever made Doug Carr arguably the best netminder in the country last season unfortunately began to elude him, and even the nights on which he kept Lowell in the game when it otherwise shouldn’t have been early on often weren’t of the vintage routinely displayed the season previous. For another, the more experience the freshmen — of which there were many — received against college hockey teams, the better they got collectively and, for the most part, individually. This is probably typified by Greg Amlong, who became as reliable an own-zone defenseman as Lowell had outside Chad Ruhwedel, and whose regular presence we’ve often cited as the reason the River Hawk defense became the best in the country in the back half of the season. Christian Folin, for his part, was a different discussion entirely, not only because he scored more points than any freshman defenseman in the country after Dec. 1, but also because he turned into a force at everything he did, and it was only if you squinted really hard and got out a magnifying glass could you find flaws in his game.
But far more important is that the team’s best forwards actually started doing their jobs and putting the puck in the net. We complained often in those first few months of the season that Scott Wilson and Riley Wetmore and Joe Pendenza and Derek Arnold — especially Derek Arnold — were often playing games in only the most technical sense, in that they were not physically absent from them. Wetmore has said this was the result of everyone trying to do each other’s jobs, which seems like a bad idea in general, because it led to no one doing their own.
But once everyone figured out what they should (and more importantly, should not) have been doing, it was terribly easy to see exactly why this team was so heavily favored to come in second to Boston College this season. Moreover, it was even easier to see why it blew the Eagles’ doors off in its run to the school’s first-ever Hockey East regular- and postseason titles.
Honestly, at this point, everything prior to the Providence weekend seems like a blur. The reasons for the team having won blend together into a soupy mishmash of details. BU couldn’t get anything resembling an attack going for an entire weekend, but that was true of a lot of teams Lowell faced during this stretch. Lowell badly outpossessed Providence and wound up winning a game that was tighter than it should have been, but you could say that about the weekend against Northeastern as well. Sometimes, everything worked and games ended in blowouts (Amherst, Merrimack, and even BC).
The losses — to Merrimack and to Maine and to Providence — stand out more, if only because of how rare they were. It’s easy to spot trees in the desert when all you’ve seen is sand for so long. They were emblematic of nothing but the team left behind and as we said ended up mattering not even a little to the River Hawks by the end of the season. They were distractions, and upsetting ones at that, but they were just noise for a team that liked to keep things somewhat muted where their opponents were concerned.
The businesslike approach taken into weighty games was notable though. That stretch against BU, BU, BC, Merrimack, and Merrimack saw them give up four goals against nationally ranked teams, with only two home games in the bunch, and they made it look hilariously easy. As though, in putting on their skates and pads and helmets and jerseys, and taking their sticks in their gloved hands, they became invincible to all attempts to do anything to unsettle or defeat them for 60 minutes. All brushed aside with little argument.
That 3-0 loss to Providence was Hockey East’s last best attempt to drag the River Hawks back down to its level and it was, for a night, moderately successful. Sure, it never actually put the Friars, or anyone else for that matter, on top of the River Hawks in the standings, but it made everyone feel for a few fleeting hours as if they were beatable. How wrong and foolish that line of thought was proven. Lowell didn’t lose again in the regular season or league postseason, and once again the businesslike attitude was there for all to see. Most of the games remained close for long stretches, many ended that way. But not for any of them did we ever for one second feel as though Lowell’s losing was a possibility. We’ve said that a million times by now, but it bears repeating: There was nothing that could be done. Not in the face of all that Lowell dominance.
Maine and Providence and BU all deposited right in the trash bin as Lowell positively skipped to its first league title, and it was at this point in particular that we figured things were going to get really and truly bad for the rest of the nation. Lowell had largely been operating in relative obscurity because all anyone was seeing was the little Ws in the standings next to scores that belied how close these games weren’t, and some neutral observers might have even seen the team rocket up the standings. But that title win was probably enough to get everyone to at least think about the ways in which a team like this could win a league like that.
Most were, to our complete and utter lack of surprise, dismissive. Yeah, Lowell won Hockey East, but could it beat Wisconsin and UNH in the NCAA tournament? Well, yes, of course it could. And then it did. By a combined score of 8-1. Neither game even let the opponents take a whack at the possibility of winning, such was Lowell’s repeatedly-demonstrated dominance of will.
There was, of course, the troubling swan song for the season for Lowell in the Frozen Four, against lowly Yale of all the teams in the country, but while that loss will take us a long time to get over, we have to be able to step back from it and see the difference between our thoughts the last time we put a post like this together.
We would have been happy to have some sort of meaningful run at a Hockey East home ice spot back in late December. We wouldn’t have even been disappointed if they didn’t achieve that end, based on how it started the season. Now we’re sitting here writing that we’re positively gutted to have seen Lowell lose to the eventual national champions in the Frozen Four. That’s a hell of a long road to hitch hike over the course of a few months, isn’t it? Now please sit back and remember that, when Norm Bazin took the job and said he believed this team could compete for national titles, pretty much everyone, including us, laughed. And it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we see those perfectly reasonable reactions as absurd.
“This team? A national title?” It takes audacity to suggest a program with five wins the year previous can compete for even a league title, but Norm Bazin and his wonderful boys took that task down in two years’ time. They did it with ease and smiles the size of Tsongas Center the whole time. They drilled two teams held up as potentially being able to knock them off in the NCAA tournament. They bowed out in overtime of the national semifinal despite playing their worst game in months. And they bring back the vast majority of their team next season.
Lowell, it appears, now never sleeps and is perhaps unburdened by the rules that bind other, merely mortal NCAA hockey teams. Lowell is not “Lowell, the occasionally good Hockey East team.” It is Lowell. That now means something we could never have foreseen. It stands apart. And it is only just beginning its work.
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 14 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.
Shayne Thompson (40 GP, 3-4-7): B-
What a nice season out of Thompson, who’s never going to be any sort of scorer but who has quietly become one of the better defensive forwards in the league. You can count on him to acquit himself well in just about any situation you need, which isn’t something we would have said of him last year, and to that end, we’ve become rather big Thompson fans this year. We’re really looking forward to what he’ll do as a senior.
Colin Wright (30 GP, 1-3-4): C+
So ends the career of Colin Wright, who had seven goals as a rookie but just 12 for his career. Like Thompson, he turned himself into a very useful defensive option, and was often good on the forecheck as well. But on the other hand, we’ll never be able to figure out where all that offense went.
Terrence Wallin (37 GP, 2-5-7): D+
What happened? He was dynamite last season as a freshman, and then this year he scored just twice and picked up as many points as a purely defensive option in Thompson. Thompson, it should be noted, also didn’t have the benefit of playing with the team’s better offensive players, as Wallin often did. We’d really love to see him get back on track next season
Ryan McGrath (40 GP, 7-14-21): B
A solid offensive debut for McGrath, who has a very nice shot and displayed a genuine taste and talent for getting under opponents’ skins on a nightly basis. Many was the time he went into the corner with a defenseman seemingly twice his size, only to emerge with the puck and a penalty drawn. That’s great stuff, but he only had one goal in his last 16 games, which is something that obviously needs to be worked on.
Stephen Buco (17 GP, 5-2-7): C
This type of output is almost exactly what we expect out of Buco, who has become our first choice to draw into the lineup when injury or coach’s decision pulls someone else out of it. Buco is totally fine, and that’s really all you need out of a 13th forward.
Josh Holmstrom (41 GP, 12-13-25): B+
After being perhaps the best Lowell forward in the first half of the season, he faded into the background somewhat thanks to the scoring onslaughts of Scott Wilson and Joe Pendenza and Riley Wetmore and Derek Arnold, but his contributions during that time were no less valuable. A very nice player who’s good at everything. If he’s not the captain next year we’ll eat our hats.
Adam Chapie (35 GP, 6-0-6): B
We’d love to see the kid fire up the offense a little more next season, but the fact that he was often on the ice in the dying minutes of Lowell’s most important games down the stretch tells you exactly how much his coaches and teammates trust him defensively. That’s good enough for us from any freshman you care to name. But hey kid, no assists? Try passing eh?
Joe Pendenza (41 GP, 15-23-38): A+
Any season in which you nearly double your already-respectable career totals goes down in our books as a very good one, and Pendenza is perhaps the best three-zone forward in the league, which is saying something. He’s lethal in transition and was perhaps the biggest part of Lowell’s offense when it transformed from being serviceable to unstoppable.
Riley Wetmore (41 GP, 16-11-27): A-
A very slow start but a very strong ending. It was nice to see him get his 100th career point so early in the second half, and then continue contributing both on and off the ice. We’re so sad to see Wetmore go. So sad. He’s the best Lowell captain we’ve ever seen, and we’ve been coming for a very long time at this point. Whoever gets the C next season has some extraordinarily big shoes to fill.
AJ White (33 GP, 2-13-15): B
Would it shock you to learn that White had four points in his last five games this season? Perhaps that’s the nature of getting 13 assists and only two goals this year: You can kind of go under the radar even for people who are, by the nature of writing a blog about the team, trying to pay pretty close attention. If a player can be this quietly good as a freshman, we’re eager to see him start making noise.
Scott Wilson (41 GP, 16-22-38): A
That was quite the second-half turnaround, and perhaps we need to just start living with the fact that as goes Wilson, so go the River Hawks. If he ever has a front-to-back strong season without a slow start, they might build him a statue in front of the Tsongas Center. An exceptional, elite Hockey East scoring talent. Lowell’s lucky to have him.
Michael Fallon (30 GP, 2-6-8): C
At the end of the first half, our summary of Fallon’s first few months in NCAA hockey started, “Perfectly fine player,” and that’s just about right, isn’t it? You could count on him, but not in every situation and not too heavily. Guys like that fill out a roster, but they don’t impress. Not everyone can. But hey, that playoff game against Maine was pretty special.
Michael Colantone (18 GP, 5-2-7): C+
Five goals is very nice from a freshman in just 18 games, but we suspect there was a reason he played just one of the last 17 games. We’d obviously like to see more, because our memories of the times he did get into the lineup regularly (back at the end of January) are admittedly a little cloudy.
Derek Arnold (41 GP, 13-17-30): B
He didn’t end up even matching his 17 goals last year, but some of the ones he did score this time around were just massive. None was bigger than the one against BU to win the Hockey East title, and for that he’ll be a legend forever. He had seven of his 30 points in the last eight games of the season, and that’s big-game-player stuff. Getting it going a little earlier would have been welcome too.
Chad Ruhwedel (41 GP, 7-16-23): A+
He was the best defenseman in the country this year. Period. There’s nothing else to say about it. We were devastated to see him sign with Buffalo and skip out on his senior year, but what else did he have to prove here? He is inarguably the finest defenseman we’ve ever seen at Lowell. He’s going to be missed.
Joe Houk (36 GP, 0-11-11): B
We weren’t impressed with his start to the year, but his performance in the second half was routinely strong and he cut out the dumb penalties for the most part. He never did display that offensive edge he brought in Div. 3, but then this is the best conference in Div. 1, and we have nothing bad to say about his defense, so maybe we’re just looking for things to complain about.
Dan Furlong (15 GP, 1-1-2): C
Furlong lost his job to Greg Amlong in the second half of the season but he was a perfectly decent bottom pairing option when he did get into the lineup. Just fine. That’s all. As with Buco, that’s not so bad for a No. 7.
Dmitry Sinitsyn (13 GP, 2-0-2): Incomplete
We’ll talk about this kid, the only Incomplete worth mentioning because he’s the only one who didn’t play more than a few games, only long enough to echo more or less the same sentiments as earlier in the year. He came in with a lot of hype, for whatever reason, and with the acknowledgement that he was still probably the youngest player on the roster, we didn’t see it. We hope that next season he can step up and fill the hole in the lineup left by Ruhwedel ably. Someone has to, and we’d rather it be this kid than a freshman.
Greg Amlong (23 GP, 1-3-4): B-
He really came on in the second half of the year (as referenced above) and certainly helped the team to enjoy its best defensive success once he started getting regular time. He’s probably going to have nightmares about getting beat for the game-winner against Yale for the rest of his life, but he really shouldn’t. It was a very tough end to a pretty damn solid freshman season. If coaches didn’t think much of him, he wouldn’t have been out there in overtime of the national semifinal. We think his future is pretty bright.
Christian Folin (38 GP, 6-15-23): A
Excellent, excellent, excellent. While it was believed that he might leave after this season, and then rumored that he would not, we sure hope he won’t jump to the professional ranks. If he doesn’t, he is the ideal replacement for Chad Ruhwedel, because he, like Lowell’s best defenseman of the last two decades, can do everything well, and is somehow only a freshman (albeit a rather old one). Losing both these guys would be devastating
Zach Kamrass (41 GP, 0-10-10): C
Kamrass really did improve his defensive game this season, but it seems to have come at the expense of his offensive work. Not that he wasn’t fine this season, but he’s going to have to really step it up in his junior year. This was a step back
Jake Suter (41 GP, 1-5-6): B
There’s no better pure defensive defenseman in the league, and that’s a big reason Lowell had so much success in the back half of the season. Once the defense was shored up from slots Nos. 1-6, where Suter found himself firmly in the middle, everything came together for this team, and you can’t have that kind of success without the kind of play Suter provided night after night.
Doug Carr (19 GP, 8-8-1; 2.79, .897): D
Just not good enough from the runner-up player of the year in 2011-12. We can’t begin to imagine what happened.
Connor Hellebuyck (24 GP, 20-3-0; 1.37, .952): A+
Wow. Where did this kid come from? We think you’re unlikely to see a better single goaltending performance probably ever in your life. Hope you enjoyed this one.
And we come at last to something that’s been brewing for a while. This is the last ever post by the Ice is Life. We’re done. Forever. You might not believe us, but this was a decision we made around September, weeks before the season started. That this final year of our blogging efforts ended with a trip to the Frozen Four was something we wouldn’t have dared to dream about too hard.
Like Jack Parker, we didn’t want a farewell tour, and unlike Parker we actually didn’t get one. We truly appreciate that people regularly stopped by to read this site, which ended up being about a who-cares hockey team turning into a juggernaut. It’s a plot we wouldn’t have envisioned when TIIL started, given that the club was, at the time, coming off a season in which the team missed the playoffs. So at the risk of not thanking every person who truly deserves it, we will instead just thank anyone who ever visited — whether to be deeply enlightened by our brilliant postgame insights, or to scowl over a searingly accurate Two Minutes’ Hate — for doing so.
But mostly we would like to thank Lowell hockey for filling our winters with all kinds of emotions, and for having the latest ones be those of joy and pride.
Amherst sucks. Lowell rules. So it has been. So it will be. Unto the end of time.
Thank you all.
Blog stats for the season
149,741 words over:
131 posts (1,143 per).
28 weeks (5,348 per).
270 pages, single-spaced.
Blog stats for all-time
598,386 words over:
617 posts (969.8 per).
276 weeks (2,168 per).
1,393 pages, single-spaced.
You’re welcome. Lowell forever.