Two weeks ago, the Hockey East conference appeared to be taking shape with the surprise Merrimack Warriors leading the pack. No. 6 Boston College, No. 4 New Hampshire and No. 18 Providence have battled to stay among the conference’s elite throughout the season, but one team written off by many by December 1st has charged to the front of the line.
No. 7 UMass-Lowell entered the 2012-2013 campaign with a new, confident swagger after first-year head coach Norm Bazin orchestrated the greatest NCAA Division I turnaround by a rookie skipper. Bazin returned to his alma mater in 2011 in an attempt to revive a program that went 5-25-4 overall, and struggled to a 4-21-2 finish in the Hockey East in 2010-2011.
In 2011-2012, the hockey community witnessed the baffling reversal of play by the River Hawks, as it increased the margin of victories by 19. The one-time conference cellar-dweller blew the hinges off the door finishing tied for second-place in Hockey East with a 17-9-1 mark in league play. UMass-Lowell continued its remarkable season after hosting the conference playoffs for the first time in a decade by earning its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1996. The River Hawks upset Miami University in the East Regional before falling to Union, just shy of the program’s first-ever trip to the Frozen Four. For his efforts behind the bench, Bazin was named Hockey East and New England Hockey Writers Coach of the Year.
Bazin’s bunch was primed for another run at the Frozen Four entering this year, but sputtered out of the gate. In the preseason poll, UMass-Lowell was slated No. 7 in the nation, acknowledging its incredible run a year ago. The River Hawks were a dismal 1-3-1 by the end of October, clearly not the beginning Bazin and his staff would have hoped for. The struggles continued throughout November and by the end of the first day in December UMass-Lowell stood at 4-7-1. The River Hawks had fallen completely out of the national picture by the end of the 2012 calendar year, receiving not a single vote, let alone enough to make the top 20. Then, the winds changed direction and the River Hawks began to soar.
Starting at home against Northeastern on Dec. 8th and lasting until a tie at Northeastern on Jan. 25th, UMass-Lowell found the mojo that worked so well last year and strung together nine straight victories. Including the tie at Northeastern, the River Hawks went to overtime in three of the next four games, coming away 1-2-1 during the stretch. Two of the three overtime games were on the road, and three of the four total games during that stint were away from home. However, even though UMass-Lowell couldn’t muster more than one point in the three road games, it still boasts an impressive 12-5-1 away record this year.
The road warriors didn’t get discouraged with the lack of points earned from the four away games. The River Hawks continued on the road at Massachusetts on Feb. 15th, pumping the Minutemen 6-3. That victory gave UMass-Lowell some confidence heading into the meat of the Hockey East schedule. Showing why last year wasn’t a fluke, Bazin’s boys have rattled off seven straight W’s against the Minutemen, No. 19 BU, BC and Merrimack. Victories against teams of that caliber late in the season will turn the voters’ heads quickly. After entering the 2013 calendar year unranked, the River Hawks have risen consistently in the USCHO.com Poll all the way up to No. 7, where they opened the season. UMass-Lowell is also the only team outside of No. 1 Quinnipiac and No. 2 Minnesota to receive first-place votes.
One of the main reasons for the continued success for the River Hawks’ this year comes in the form of a freshman netminder. Connor Hellebuyck (WPG 130th overall ‘12) was named the Hockey East/Pro Ambitions Rookie of the Week for the second straight week after leading UMass-Lowell to consecutive wins over Merrimack. The Michigan native earned his fourth shutout of the season Friday en route to a 4-0 victory at home in the Tsongas Center. Hellebuyck made 31 saves in Friday’s victory, as well as in Sunday’s 3-1 win in North Andover, Mass. For the season, the freshman backstop is currently 13-1-0 with a 1.41 goals-against-average and a .947 save-percentage. Hellebuyck’s goals-against-average and save-percentage rank second in the nation behind another freshman sensation, Ryan McKay.
The future certainly looks bright for the Bazin Bunch.
The attendance numbers have been announced for the NCAA Division I as teams switch focus from regular season to playoff time. As you would expect the perennial powerhouses with the best barns float to the top. North Dakota takes home the No. 1 ranking with an average attendance just shy of 12,000. More impressively, the Big Ten Hockey Conference, which is set to begin this in 2013-2014, would have placed four of its six members in the top 10. Wisconsin and Minnesota are second and third despite the Badger faithful only filling two-thirds of the massive Kohl Center. Michigan State ranked No. 8 with an average attendance just below 6,000, filling over 90% of the Munn Ice Arena. Michigan rounds out the top 10 at No. 10 averaging slightly less than its in-state rival.
Among the future Big Ten schools not in the top 10 were Ohio State and Penn State. The Buckeyes finished No. 15 in average attendance despite filling just over a quarter of the seats in the colossal 17,500-seat Value City Arena. In its first year as an NCAA program, Penn State actually set the mark for the highest-percentage of seats filled. Before moving over to the state-of-the-art 6,000-seat Pegula Ice Arena (above) next season, the Nittany Lions call Greenberg Ice Pavilion and its 1,400-seat capacity home. Despite the seating limitations, Penn State sold out every home game and averaged over 120% attendance. Next year, I have no doubt that Penn State will rival its Big Ten foes in average attendance numbers.