Hockey: UMass-Lowell regains its bearings

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Hockey: UMass-Lowell regains its bearings

By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com

In less than a week, the 2010 Beanpot will overtake Boston's college hockey scene. The stage at the TD Garden will be set for a sold-out show featuring highly anticipated faceoffs between BU, BC, Harvard, and Northeastern.

But there's another team in Massachusetts that, while outside the bright lights of the big city, has found itself under the spotlight on the national scene.

UMass-Lowell.

The No. 16 River Hawks (14-9-2) still sit comfortably after a thirteen-spot drop from their best standing this season. Early on it appeared that the momentum built from UML's run at the Hockey East title last year was going to carry on into 2009-10. They ripped through the first two months of their schedule, defeating 9 of their first 12 opponents, including Colgate, defending national champion Boston University, and current Hockey East leader New Hampshire.

It was as strong a start as coach Blaise MacDonald could have asked for.

"I think this is a good year for us,'' he said. "We do have the physical and mental makeup to be a championship type of team. I think our work habits and talent are of that level. You need to mix in some consistency and some good fortune."

Macdonald's has plenty to work with.

Centers Scott Campbell and David Vallorani, as well as left wing Kory Falite, have led the way for UML's offensive attack. Campbell has played shifts in every single contest this season. His ice time was particularly pleasing to MacDonald in the early going, as he put together an impressive five-game scoring streak (2G, 6A) that spanned two weeks in November. Falite has stepped up as Campbell cooled off. The senior's 23 points (13g, 10a) has already eclipsed last years total of 22 and the winger still has 11 games left to play. Those who might have feared a sophomore slump from Vallorani were heartened by his hat trick against UMass on Dec. 5.

But for all the talent, this squad is not built around superstars. The flashiest feature of UMass-Lowell hockey is probably the state-of-the-art Tsongas Arena. Unlike Beanpot-bound BU and BC, whose rosters have a combined 24 NHL draftees, the River Hawks are a gritty team comprised of interchangeable parts. Nowhere is this better evidenced than in net. UML splits goalie time between seniors Carter Hutton and Nevin Hamilton almost evenly.

"They played well and they're both talented, so they both deserved to play,'' MacDonald has said. "They are both highly respected by their teammates.''

Hutton (8-6-0) and Hamilton (6-3-2) anchor an already formidable defense. Not only do the River Hawks allow the fewest goals by periods (15-19-21-1), they also have the top-rated scoring defense (2.40) in the conference. At one point during the season, senior defenseman Nick Schaus 16 points made him the first blue liner to lead UML in scoring since the program entered the Division One ranks.

Unfortunately, consistency has been hard to come by in the contender-heavy Hockey East.

UML followed its hot streak with a three game stumble against conference foes Providence, Maine, and New Hampshire. Though they rebounded with the win over UMass, the River Hawks haven't been able to string together more than two wins at a time. It seems like part of the problem in each loss is inefficiency on the power play. Another issue has surfaced in the final periods of games, where UML has rested on leads, laying back on a cushion only to see it slip out from under them. Third period penalties havent helped either.

The good news? MacDonald believes his team can adjust.

A four-point gain in conference play last weekend showed that the River Hawks are already working out some kinks. On Friday, UML put a 5-4 victory against Merrimack in the books. Saturdays win, however, had a different feel.

The opponent was No. 14 Boston College. Tsongas Arena held 5,711 fans that night and the excitement was palpable.

Team psychologist Jim Graves beamed as he scanned the crowd. "The atmosphere here is great," he said, "and each year its getting better.

Tension spiked in the third period with the score tied 1-1. When Paul Worthington lit the lamp at 12:57 to put the River Hawks up a goal, Tsongas absolutely erupted.

It was a stark contrast to Blaise MacDonalds postgame.

His squad had just beaten the highest nationally ranked Hockey East team but MacDonald hardly seemed fired up -- at least at first glance.

But there was a fire in his eyes.

"I think we did what good teams do. We find a way to win those games, he said. "It's a tangible experience with a lot on the line. You play a team like Boston College at home here . . . and it's a big game. It was hard fought and we got it done.

If the UMass-Lowell can carry that momentum into tonights match up versus Northeastern (6-10-1), it could net a three-game win streak for the first time since November.

"Its one day at a time, one game at a time, MacDonald said. "I feel good about our team."

Three things we learned from the Red Sox' 2-1 loss to the Twins

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Three things we learned from the Red Sox' 2-1 loss to the Twins

Three Things we learned from the Boston Red Sox' 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins:

1) It only seems like David Ortiz can come through every time.

When Ortiz comes to the plate as he did Friday night -- bases loaded, no out, bottom of the ninth, Red Sox trailing by a run -- it seems like a win is a fait accompli.

"I think everybody in the ballpark just assumed this one might have a chance to be ended right there,'' said John Farrell. "He's been so big for us that everybody in the dugout felt the same way -- confident that the stage was set for him to come through with another dramatic moment.''

Instead, Ortiz rolled over a ground ball to second, and with the Twins infield drawn in, it was enough to turn a 4-2-3 double play that took the starch out of the inning for the Sox.

If anything, though, the inning revealed how remarkable Ortiz has been so often. It's not easy to come through even most times, and it's certainly far from automatic.

"The pitcher (closer Brandon Kintzler) made good pitches,'' said Ortiz. "That's the name of the game. I'm always looking forward to something happening. It just doesn't work out all the time.''

2) Eduardo Rodriguez has his slider back.

When Rodriguez endured a rough stretch in late May and June, he seemed to all but abandon his slider, relying almost exclusively on his two-seam fastball and changeup.

But since returning from a stint in Pawtucket, Rodriguez has flashed the slider that made him so effective as a rookie last season.

"Since he's come back,'' said Farrell, "he's added much more depth. He's able to get to the back foot of some righthanders for some swing-and-miss. He was on the plate with three quality pitches for strikes tonight.''

"I feel like I can locate it better, where I want it,'' confirmed Rodriguez. "Outside, inside corner...I'm getting more confident in it. I think I got out of my mind the tipping (pitches) stuff and all that stuff and I'm just working to throw the ball right where I want it.''

It's almost impossible for a starter in the big leagues to survive with just two pitches, as Rodriguez was attempting to do earlier this season. And it seems foolish to even try, given that Rodriguez's slider can be a plus-pitch for him at times.

3) If Mookie Betts has to miss some time, the Red Sox have options in right field.

Farrell said Betts has been dealing with soreness and stiffness in his right knee since after the All-Star break and has been undergoing treatment.

There's no evidence that this is serious, and he's considered day-to-day. But even if Betts needs some time off, or in a worse-case scenario, has to go on the DL, the Sox can do some things with their outfield.

Michael Martinez's best outfield position is right, as he demonstrated Friday night after taking over for Betts in the top of the fifth. Martinez ran a long way to grab a ball in foul territory for the final out in the sixth, then turned in a fine, tumbling catch in the eighth to take extra bases away from Adam Grossman.

Bryce Brentz, who's been in a platoon of sorts in left with Brock Holt, has played a lot of right field in the minors and has the arm strength to play there.

Finally, there's the matter of Andrew Benintendi. The Sox raised some eyebrows with the news that they were having Benintendi move over to left field at Double A Portland, perhaps in anticipation of playing the position for Boston at some point later this year.

Benintendi is a natural center fielder and even though he doesn't much experience in right, if you're athletic enough to play center, you can usually move to either corner spot.

Quotes, Notes and Stars from the Red Sox' 2-1 loss to the Twins

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Quotes, Notes and Stars from the Red Sox' 2-1 loss to the Twins

Quotes, Notes and Stars from the Boston Red Sox' 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins:

QUOTES:

"I think everybody in the ballpark just assumed this one had a chance to be ended right there.'' - John Farrell on David Ortiz's at-bat with no out and the bases loaded in the ninth inning.

"I feel like I can locate it better - outside, inside corner -- so it's given me more confidence.'' - Eduardo Rodriguez on the improvement with his slider.

"I always look forward to something (good) happening; it just doesn't work out all the time.'' - David Ortiz on his ninth-inning at-bat.

NOTES:

* The Red Sox saw a seven-game winning streak at Fenway -- their longest of the season -- snapped.

* Boston has homered in 13 consecutive games.

* The Red Sox bullpen has posted a 1.17 ERA since July 6.

* Mookie Betts became the first Red Sox hitter to hit 20 homers in a season before he turns 24 since Nomar Garciaparra.

* Dustin Pedroia has reached base in 30 straight games.

* The eight strikeouts posted by Eduardo Rodriguez were a season high and one shy of his career high.

* The loss was only the 15th this season in games in which the Red Sox score first.

* Rodriguez has not allowed an opposing baserunner to steal a base since July 5, 2015.

STARS:

1) Kyle Gibson

Don't let the 5.12 ERA he had coming in fool you. Gibson worked out a little jam in the first, then completely shut the Red Sox down the rest of the way, allowing just one hit and one walk after the first.

2) Brian Dozier

Dozier homered in the second to tie the game, singled in the fourth, walked in the sixth and singled again in the eighth -- reaching base in all four plate appearances.

3) Miguel Sano

Sano invited trouble when he dropped a routine pop-up to allow the Red Sox to put the potential tying run on base in the eighth. But he had three base hits on the night, including a run-scoring double that put the Twins ahead to stay in the sixth.

Sean McAdam can be followed on Twitter: @Sean_McAdam