Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Know Your Enemy: UMass-Lowell

It's a belated start this year for WaP's annual Know Your Enemy feature, a function of the relatively late release of the RPI schedule (May 14 this year, which is after KYE usually gets underway), so we're going to play a little catch up to ensure that the series concludes right on time as the season gets going. Typically, we will have a new entry every Wednesday, but we're starting off the first couple of weeks doing two a week (like two-a-days, only less stressful). This is the first of 23 entries for this offseason.

Since last we left UML - preparing to head into Norm Bazin's first year as coach - much has changed. The Engineers' first NCAA opponent next season will be a program that has undergone a renaissance of sorts, quickly rising from the bowels of Hockey East to being in regular contention at the top of the conference. It's kinda like Union with fewer years of awfulness before the rise to the top.

Nickname: River Hawks
Location: Lowell, MA
Founded: 1894
Conference: Hockey East
National Championships: 3 (1979, 1981, 1982 - all Division II)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2014
Last Frozen Four: 2013
Coach: Norm Bazin (5th season)
2014-15 Record: 21-12-6 (11-7-4 HEA, 4th place)
Series: UML leads, 11-10-1
First Game: December 30, 1982 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: December 16, 2006 (Troy, NY)
Last UML win: December 29, 2011 (Storrs, CT)

2015-16 game: October 9, 2015 (Lowell, MA)

Key players: G Kevin Boyle, sr.; F Adam Chapie, sr.; F Michael Colantone, sr.; F Michael Fallon, sr.; F A.J. White, sr.; F Evan Campbell, jr.; F Joe Gambardella, jr.; D Michael Kapla, jr.; D Dylan Zink, jr.; D Chris Forney, so.; D Tyler Mueller, so.; F C.J. Smith, so.; F Ryan Dmowski, fr.; D Niklas Folin, fr.; D Mattias Goransson, fr.; F Guillaume Leclerc, fr.

Previous KYE installment:
Sometimes, a program gets a new coach and that coach instantly turns things around with the talent he inherits. Such was the case in Lowell, as Bazin took the reins from Blaise MacDonald before the 2011-12 season, and instantly made the River Hawks more than just contenders. He guided the program back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 16 years, just a year out from a season that ended with a whopping five wins.

UML has been nothing but successful under Bazin, who was the Spencer Penrose Award winner for national coach of the year in 2013 as he guided the River Hawks to their first Division I Frozen Four in just his second year at the helm - they were defeated by eventual national champions Yale in Pittsburgh. Lowell advanced to the NCAA tournament in each of Bazin's first three years, winning Hockey East hardware for the first time in 2013 by sweeping the regular season and tournament crowns, then following up in 2014 with a second consecutive Hockey East tournament championship.

Even this past season has to be considered something of a success, as the River Hawks completed their fourth consecutive 20-win season, something they haven't done since their days as a Division II powerhouse in the early 1980s. It was successful enough that UML just barely missed out on a fourth straight national tournament bid, which led to a confused columnist in the Lowell Sun penning a hilariously awful screed blasting the Pairwise Rankings up and down which embarrassed most real Lowell fans in its shortsightedness. But that crazy column did at least make the valid point that the River Hawks remain one of the best teams in the country.

When Connor Hellebuyck, arguably the top goaltender in the country during his freshman and sophomore years, signed a pro contract at the beginning of last season, some expected UML to come back down to earth, but with junior transfer Boyle between the pipes (coming in, oddly enough, from UML's rivals at UMass-Amherst), the River Hawks remained more than competitive. His numbers were not as astronomically high as Hellebuyck's had been, but they were more than good enough. Meanwhile, a relatively young team was paced by its freshmen and sophomores, as five of the team's top six scorers were from those sets of underclassmen, with the sixth being a junior (Chapie). Smith, in his freshman campaign, led the team in scoring with 16 goals and 19 assists.

All told, Lowell brings back 11 of their top 12 scorers from last season's team, which was 7th in the nation offensively. The defense, as mentioned, wasn't quite as strong as it had been in the previous two seasons with Hellebuyck as the anchor, but the offense was, with some frequency, good enough to bail out and defensive issues.

Bazin produced winners even when he was still largely coaching MacDonald's team. Now in year five, this is entirely his team and he has UML poised to be competitive in a very difficult conference for the foreseeable future. It's not a team brimming with gobs of individual talent like some other Hockey East programs do, but they function as the best teams always function - as more than the sum of its parts.

That makes for a difficult first outing for the Engineers, who will need to find the equalizer in Jason Kasdorf, a goaltender who was frequently compared to Hellebuyck earlier in his career because they both carried their team high and far in 2013 as freshmen who were both (at the time) Winnipeg Jets property with among the top numbers nationally among goaltenders. Lowell's defense isn't impenetrable, which means that an Engineer team that struggled to hit the net at times last year has to take advantage of opportunities as they arise in order to be successful - because even if Kasdorf plays well, it'll be for naught if they can't take advantage on the opposite end.

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