It's unlikely anyone would argue that UMass-Lowell is the best Cinderella story in local college hockey this season. The program was in disarray last spring when financial problems threatened the River Hawks' very existence. Its happy ending wasn't without consequences. The team lost players because of the program's uncertainty and recruiting efforts took a serious hit.
The squad has rebounded remarkably. Heading into tomorrow night's home game against Boston College, the River Hawks are 10-5-4 overall and 5-5-4 in Hockey East.
They are 7-1-1 at home and ranked 15th nationally.
"I don't think you can even mention it enough," said coach Blaise MacDonald. "If you walked in our shoes last March, April, May, and June, it was very difficult to see kids' dreams almost be extinguished by things so out of their control. There was a lot of uncertainty there and we ended up losing three kids [from the program].
"[Tomorrow night], we're going to have 17 sophomores and freshmen playing and we've had that quite a few games this season. They've played very well. I really think it's an amazing feat, what these kids have accomplished. I'm happy for the guys, but they know there is so much unfinished business ahead of us."
The River Hawks are coming off back-to-back overtime games last weekend, with a split of the series against Providence. MacDonald wasn't thrilled with his team's performance, but said there were positive aspects.
"All three games against Providence this year have been overtime," said MacDonald. "We probably played a C to a C-minus over the weekend. A lot of it was Providence's doing more than our doing. They were a very tough matchup for us. I loved our resiliency, how we just kind of hung in there and continued to work toward the end of the game. It was a huge win [3-2] on Saturday."
Despite the extreme youth in the lineup, MacDonald said there appears to be no fragility on the roster.
"We have oftentimes played our best hockey in the third period, or played our best hockey when our backs were up against the wall," he said. "We played poorly at Providence and then came back and won the next day. We didn't play great, but did enough to win the game. I respect our resiliency to this point."
He acknowledged the Eagles will be formidable because of their scoring ability and the terrific play of freshman goalie John Muse.
"Our approach this year has been a little different than in years past," MacDonald said. "We've really simplified our systems and we're more concerned with coaching our team than preparing to negate our opponents. It's worked pretty well with a young team. BC presents a multitude of challenges for us. We've got to focus on [Nathan] Gerbe and a few others - [Brock] Bradford, Ben Smith. We need to heighten our awareness when it comes to managing our game and puck security."
After hosting UMass Saturday, the River Hawks will face nonconference foe Minnesota-Duluth for a pair next weekend. MacDonald said he thinks they come at the right time.
"If you're banging at the NCAA PairWise and power rankings, these are huge games," said MacDonald. "But if you're just trying to develop your team and program, they are games that are new and different and an opportunity to maybe explore your potential to a greater level. I really like it at this time of year because it's refreshing."
Although MacDonald knows a fair amount about his team already, he'll learn plenty more down the stretch as the Hockey East race gets tighter.
"We haven't seen BC yet or Vermont yet," said MacDonald. "Once we handle BC, I think it will give us a pretty good barometer of where we're at. UNH has 12 of the best forwards in the league and we matched up very well against them [going 1-1-1 in three games]. So, I feel like we can compete and play with anybody."
Alone at the topFifth-ranked New Hampshire overtook No. 9 Northeastern for sole possession of first place in Hockey East. The Wildcats, led by senior forward Matt Fornataro (seven goals, 17 assists in 20 games) and senior goalie Kevin Regan (11-4-0, 2.28 goals-against average and .928 save percentage), are coming off a sweep of UMass and will face Dartmouth in a nonconference game before a two-game set against Boston University next weekend . . . The second-ranked Harvard women have won five straight games, including over St. Lawrence and Clarkson last weekend, as Sarah Vaillancourt had 7 points and was named ECAC Player of the Week. The Crimson, who face Dartmouth at home Sunday afternoon, are 16-1 overall and 13-0 in league play. The squad's only blemish was a Dec. 14 loss to No. 1 UNH.
Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.