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."

Bruins power play looking for some upgrade answers

Bruins power play looking for some upgrade answers

BOSTON - It would appear things can’t continue the way they are for the Bruins' power play. 

After a disastrous first period helped dig them a hole in a 4-2 loss to the lowly Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night, there was some pretty serious soul-searching going with a man-advantage that has been both toothless and mistake-prone on far too many nights. 

In the Colorado loss a couple of early power-play possessions, one that was completely ineffectual with zero meaningful possession or shots on net and then a second that turned into a Nathan MacKinnon shorthanded goal, dropped the B’s into a hole they couldn’t climb out of. The shorthanded sequence was particularly damning with a desperate Torey Krug diving to keep a puck in the offensive zone, and then watching helpless as MacKinnon beat him to the loose puck and then took off down the ice behind the last line of B’s defense. 

Krug placed the blame on himself for the high-risk play at the offensive blue line, but it’s hard to wholly blame somebody that was using hustle to try and make something happen offensively. 

“I thought they were tired, and if I could keep it in then we keep them hemmed in and get them running around. At the end of the day, it’s a 50-50 play, but maybe early in my career, I learn that now and probably won’t do it anymore. Sometimes you’ve got to go through those things to learn,” said Krug. “It’s just one of those plays I thought instinctively I could get there and keep him hemmed in, and you could even tell when he went in on the breakaway that he was tired.

So, if I keep that in and we keep them hemmed in, hopefully we get a couple chances. But we’ve got to be better, some of our better players on our team, and we’ve got to take the onus on ourselves to start capitalizing on opportunities and changing the game for our team.”

Nobody is going to reasonably suggest that a dangerous power-play guy like Krug be removed from the special-teams unit, but clearly something needs to change. The Bruins are tied for 25th in the NHL on the power play with a 14.1 percent success rate, and they can’t blame lack of opportunities because they’re middle of the road when it comes to power-play chances this season. 

Only the Flyers, Stars and Blackhawks have allowed more shorthanded goals than the Bruins (four) in 28 games played as well, so the Black and Gold essentially aren’t playing good defense or offense on the power play this year. Krug saie that it’s a mindset thing and that the Bruins need to get back to the confident, energetic way they attacked penalty kills last season. 

“We want to make plays, we want to help our team. It’s not like we’re out there not trying to make plays or anything, but we just have to be better,” said Krug. “We’ve got to have better focus, crisper passes, making quick plays to the net and making things happen. I feel like right now we might just be standing there, [just kind of] static, just hoping that things are going to happen and we’re not making them happen. 

“So, we’ve got to change our mindset, and like I said, those guys on that unit are the guys that will go to work and make sure we’re better next time for our team.”

But it goes beyond simple approach. The Bruins lost their second-leading PP goal-scorer last season when Loui Eriksson signed with the Vancouver Canucks. Other top unit PP performers like David Krejci,  Krug and Ryan Spooner haven’t been as good this season. Still, perhaps the biggest reason is the all-around offensive disappearance of Patrice Bergeron, who had 12 goals and 13 assists on the PP last season for a team-best 25 power-play points. This season, Bergeron has one goal and two points on the PP in 25 games and has been neutralized by opposing penalty kills from his “bumper” position roving up and down the slot. 

The Bruins are determined to ride things out with Bergeron both five-on-five and on the PP, and rightfully so, given his quality, productive body of work with the Bruins. He’s Boston’s best player and you don’t ever go away from those guys. 

But Bergeron has been ordinary for the Bruins on the PP after being extraordinary last season, and not much is going to change with the B’s man advantage unless No. 37 begins to find the range, confidence and short-term quick burst that’s needed for the B’s power play to flow through him like a well-oiled scoring machine. A greater impact by David Backes on the net-front power play could help and an uptick in PP production from Krug, Krejci and Spooner would obviously be welcome for the Black and Gold. 

But the Bruins power play is designed to play off Bergeron’s many qualities and strengths when he’s at his best, and a big part of the B’s troubles and Bergeron’s troubles are linked together because No. 37 has been less than his best in a season that’s been challenging for him from the very beginning. 
 

Brady, Harbaugh found common ground on plane ride back from Michigan

Brady, Harbaugh found common ground on plane ride back from Michigan

FOXBORO -- What could have been an awkward plane ride for Tom Brady and John Harbaugh was made less so thanks to a high school lacrosse player. 

Brady and Harbaugh shared a private plane back from Michigan where Jim Harbaugh and his University of Michigan program put on an event for National Signing Day. About a year earlier, Brady told a room full of reporters that Harbaugh and his coaching staff should study the rule book and "figure it out" after hearing that they were pretty upset about the unusual formations the Patriots ran during their AFC Divisional Round win over Baltimore. 

They may not have been on the best of terms.

"I was pissed off," he told ESPN's Ian O'Connor before the start of this season. "It was uncalled for. And the rules are deeper than that, and I know the rules, and I stand by why that play shouldn't have been allowed. ... So yeah, that should never have been said."

But on the flight was Harbaugh's daughter Alison, a high school lacrosse player. When Brady took some time to share a few thoughts on competitiveness with her, he and Harbaugh found common ground.

"We had a lot of fun," Harbaugh said of the flight. "I don't know if he's talked about that at all, but we ended up sharing a plane ride along with my daughter and a couple of his people, friends of his. We just had a chance to just talk for a couple hours. And really more than anything, Alison got a chance to listen to Tom Brady talk about competing and what it takes to be great at what you do.

"And one of the funny things about it was, he was so nice to her. He gets off and they go, and we get back on the plane and we're talking, and she says something like, 'Boy, Tom really is a nice guy.' And I look at here and go, 'Tom?' I'm thinking 'Mr. Brady' would have been more appropriate. She said, 'He said to call me Tom.' I got a kick out of that.

"It was good. Lot of respect for him and a lot of respect for what he's accomplished. He's very tough to compete against. The best quarterback that's played, certainly in this era, without question in my mind. That's how I would rank him. And it's just another tough challenge to have to play against him."