By Mary Paoletti
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.
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."