Friday, July 15, 2016

Know Your Enemy: UMass-Lowell

The final non-conference opponent of the season for the Engineers is a team that, a few years back, looked to be having a boomlet of success to the casual observer. But with some of Hockey East's power teams going thorough prolonged periods of struggle, there's naturally going to be someone there to take their place - nature abhors a vacuum and all. Enter the River Hawks. Their sustained successes under Norm Bazin have left no doubt that they are now a program to be reckoned with on a year in, year out basis.

UMass-Lowell
Nickname: River Hawks
Location: Lowell, MA
Founded: 1894
Conference: Hockey East
National Championships: 3 (1979, 1981, 1982 - all Division II)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2016
Last Frozen Four: 2013
Coach: Norm Bazin (6th season)
2015-16 Record: 25-10-5 (12-6-4 HEA, 4th place)
Series: UML leads, 12-10-1
First Game: December 30, 1982 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: December 16, 2006 (Troy, NY)
Last UML win: October 9, 2015 (Lowell, MA)

2016-17 game: January 3, 2017 (Troy, NY)

Key players: F Evan Campbell, sr.; F Joe Gambardella, sr.; D Michael Kapla, sr.; D Dylan Zink, sr.; F John Edwardh, jr.; D Chris Forney, jr.; D Tyler Mueller, jr.; D Tommy Panico, jr. F C.J. Smith, jr.; F Ryan Dmowski, so.; D Niklas Folin, so.; F Nick Master, so.; F Guillaume Leclerc, fr.; F Ryan Lohin, fr.; G Garrett Metcalf, fr.; G Tyler Wall, fr.

Previous KYE installments:
2016 represented the fourth time in five seasons that UML reached the NCAA tournament (they were the first team out in 2015) and their fifth consecutive 20-win season. This is truly the best stretch of seasons in Lowell's Division I history, and their best overall run since they were beasts of Division II in the late 70s and early 80s.

Last season, UML rode their strong defense to fourth in a stacked Hockey East table, then swept Boston University in the league quarterfinals and survived a 3OT marathon with defending champions Providence in the semis before falling to Northeastern in the league championship game. In the NCAA tournament, Lowell had to tangle with the best two teams in Connecticut playing in the Eastern Regional in Albany. The River Hawks dispatched Yale in overtime in a measure of revenge for the Bulldogs' 2013 Frozen Four triumph, but could not overcome a championship game-bound Quinnipiac, falling 4-1.

On defense, Lowell will be looking to replace Kevin Boyle between the pipes, and they have a pair of incoming freshmen in Metcalf and Wall who are both NHL draftees that are the likely options. But in front of their young netminder, whoever that ends up being, the core of the remainder of the defense that brought UML within a game of their second Frozen Four in four seasons will be almost entirely untouched - and chock full of experience.

All six regular defensemen return from last year's team. Five are juniors and seniors, and as a group they missed a total of nine games last year, five of which were missed by Folin in his freshman season. In front of Boyle, they established the fourth-stingiest defense in the nation last year with a team GAA of 1.88. No doubt their return will help ease the transition in net.

The River Hawks didn't light the planet ablaze offensively last season but it was far beyond adequate at a rate of 3.02 goals per game, certainly enough to win most of time. UML lost just twice last season when reaching three goals - both times on the road in December. Of the five players who recorded 10 or more goals last season, three (Gambardella, Zink, and Smith) return this year, and all three repeated the feat from a season prior. Campbell, who missed the last 11 games of the season to an injury, will also be back in the lineup - he cracked double-digits along with his three teammates in 2015.

At the final accounting, 11 players on this year's team had 10 or more points last season, including four defensemen. Bazin's men have plenty of options for scoring, no doubt. On first glance, UML doesn't have any individual scoring option that will necessarily be striking fear in the hearts of opponents, but they have plenty of outstanding options collectively that will likely make again for a strong enough attack to make the River Hawks dangerous in any game.

That adds up to a difficult final non-conference opponent, even at the Field House, for the Engineers, who have lost four of the last five games against Lowell. RPI's loss last year at Tsongas Center to kick off the season was really one of the Engineers' worst performances of the entire season, but it wasn't entirely their fault - UML also looked very, very good, every inch one of the best teams in the nation. Give them the edge in this year's matchup, although with RPI being at home and likely being improved offensively compared to what they had early in last season, it should at least be a little bit closer, an excellent test at a time when the Engineers will be heading into the meatiest part of their ECAC schedule.

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