Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Know Your Enemy: UMass-Lowell

Our next entry in the Know Your Enemy series is the first of four teams on the RPI schedule this year with a first year coach. During the Dan Fridgen era, UMass-Lowell was a regular fixture on the RPI non-conference schedule, as the Engineers and River Hawks did battle every year (with one exception) from 1992 through 2006. This season, the teams meet for the first time on a schedule assembled by Seth Appert - the last game took place in Appert's first season behind the bench - in the opening game of the UConn Hockey Classic.

Nickname: River Hawks
Location: Lowell, MA
Founded: 1894
Conference: Hockey East
National Championships: 3 (1979, 1981, 1982 - all Division II)
Last NCAA Appearance: 1996
Last Frozen Four: 1983 (Division II)
Coach: Norm Bazin (1st season)
2010-11 Record: 5-25-4 (4-21-2 HEA, 10th place)
Series: Tied, 10-10-1
First Game: December 30, 1982 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: December 16, 2006 (Troy, NY)
Last UML win: October 9, 2005 (Lowell, MA)

2011-12 game: December 29, 2011 (Storrs, CT)

Key players: F David Vallorani, sr., F Matt Ferreira, sr.; F Riley Wetmore, jr., G Doug Carr, so.; F Derek Arnold, so.; F Joseph Pendenza, so., D Chad Ruhwedel, so., F Tyler Brickler, fr.; F Mike Conderman, fr.; D Colton Saucerman, fr.; F Terrence Wallin, fr.; F Scott Wilson, fr.

Much has changed about Lowell since the school's hockey program got it's start in the early 1960s - the division, the name of the school, and the name of the team are all different from the day the Lowell Technological Institute Terriers first took to the ice in 1961 and started varsity hockey as a Division II squad in 1967. Lowell Technological Institute and Lowell State College merged in 1975, creating what was at the time known as the University of Lowell, and it was shortly after this merger that the school entered its heyday on the ice.

With the merger, coach Bill Riley's team became the Chiefs, and the team quickly became one of the powers of Division II just as the NCAA introduced the Division II national championship. Their rivals from Merrimack took the first national crown in 1978, but the Chiefs claimed the title the following season, bouncing back from a 3-4-0 start to finish up 24-2 the rest of the way, defeating Mankato State in the championship with a team that included future NHLer and four time Stanley Cup winner Craig MacTavish.

That victory arguably marked the beginning of the first Division II dynasty, as the Chiefs returned to the national tournament in each of the succeeding four seasons, winning three national championships in four years with twin victories over Plattsburgh State in 1981 and 1982.

In 1983, when the ECAC's East Division decided to break off from the rest of the conference and join Hockey East, Lowell signed on as well to become the league's seventh member, making the move to Division I the following season as part of Hockey East's inaugural season, finishing fifth just a point behind fourth place New Hampshire.

The Chiefs weren't just wallflowers in the league's early days - they proved their worth early on. By 1987, the league's third year, Lowell finished in second in the league standings, and the following season got their first taste of the NCAA tournament with an at-large bid. Following that bid, however, the team became mired in a funk, finishing last or next to last in Hockey East the next three years, and Riley departed in favor of Bruce Crowder. At about the same time, the school joined the University of Massachusetts system and became known as UMass-Lowell.

Crowder spent only five seasons in Lowell before leaving for Northeastern, but the team was generally successful under him. Three of those seasons were 20-win years, including a 25-win season in 1994 that saw the team reach the Hockey East championship (losing by one goal to BU) and a second NCAA tournament apperance, backstopped by Hobey Baker finalist Dwayne Roloson. That team came within a goal of the Frozen Four, earning their first NCAA win with a 4-3 victory over Michigan State (on the Spartans' home ice) before falling 2-1 in overtime to Minnesota.

Two years later it was almost deja vu for the team by then known as the River Hawks. With a 26-win season (most in Division I in the school's history), Lowell headed back to the NCAA tournament where they once again faced Michigan State in East Lansing, and once again shocked the home team (6-2), but fell to Colorado College, once more a game short of the Frozen Four.

Crowder's departure opened the door for the man who is now Maine's head coach, Tim Whitehead. The five years under Whitehead were fairly undistinguished in Lowell, and upon his departure in 2001 to replace the late Shawn Walsh at Maine, Blaise MacDonald came into the picture. Just a year removed from a shocking season at Niagara that saw the Purple Eagles come within a game of the Frozen Four, it was hoped that he would bring the River Hawks to that level and beyond.

Unfortunately for UMass-Lowell, that was not to be. Though he led the team to three 20-win seasons (2002, 2005, 2009) in his time behind the bench, those seasons merely punctuated losing campaigns for the most part. In 2007, the team faced an uncertain future with the UMass Board of Trustees threatening to axe the program over rental fees at Tsongas Arena, their home, and due to a perceived issue with the team competing against the system's flagship campus in Amherst, but the program survived those issues.

This past season, UML endured probably their worst season to date as a varsity program. They picked up only five wins all year (two against just-as-bad Providence and another against Atlantic Hockey's Bentley) and finished dead last in Hockey East with 21 losses in 27 league games. MacDonald stepped down at the end of the year, he will be replaced by Hamilton head coach and UML alumnus Norm Bazin.

Vallorani and Wetmore were productive for UML last season, but the team's production didn't go terribly far beyond them - the team was 45th in the nation offensively out of 58 teams. Ferriera and Pendenza return 10 goals each, so at the very least, most of the team's top scorers will be back from what was a very young team last season. Additionally, the River Hawks may be getting a shot in the arm from several talented young freshman forwards, especially Scott Wilson and Terrence Wallin, the latter of which had been highly coveted by the Engineers before he chose Lowell.

Defensively, Bazin may have even more work to do as last year's UML squad 54th in the nation on that metric, allowing 4 goals per game. Carr and classmate Doug Boulanger largely split time in net last season, with neither putting up numbers that would be considered remarkable by any stretch of the imagination. They will have to improve significantly in order for the River Hawks to have a shot this year.

This will be the first time the Engineers and River Hawks face each other on neutral ice. It's hard to say exactly how this game will play out since both teams have a good number of question marks heading into the year. It does seem like some of Lowell's best players will be young, but the same can be said of RPI. Both sides will have a good number of games under their belt by the time this game is played, but it's difficult to draw a bead on what to expect in this one at this point in time. If this game were played in a couple of years instead of this year, it could prove to be an exciting matchup between a pair of talented squads, but right now it could be anything from a solid game between two young, good teams, it could be a snoozer between two teams trying to refine that young talent, or a combination of the two.

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