LOWELL -- If the fans who flocked to the Tsongas Center in record numbers -- an average of 5,246 per game, or 88 percent of capacity -- this winter hadn't witnessed it with their own eyes, they'd have trouble believing they were looking at a championship team that two years ago won just five games, finished dead last in Hockey East, and missed the tournament.
When Norm Bazin took over as the new coach in the spring of 2011, expectations were well within reason. UMass Lowell Athletic Director Dana Skinner would have been satisfied if the River Hawks doubled their win total in their first season under Bazin. If they could win 13 or 14 games, he would have been thrilled.
In 2012, Bazin engineered the biggest turnaround by a team under a first-year coach in Division I college hockey history.
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It wasn't a fluke. This season the River Hawks have been even better. They won Hockey East's regular-season championship for the first time and are ranked fifth in the national polls with a 24-10-2 record. They are going to the Hockey East Tournament semifinals at TD Garden in Boston for the first time in four years on Friday, and are a virtual lock for another berth in the NCAA Tournament. It would mark the first time in the school's Division I history it will have appeared in the big show in consecutive seasons.
Don't be misled. This UMass Lowell team that Bazin has guided to a 48-23-3 record the last two winters is still very much the same team that finished 5-25-4 and in 10th place two years ago. Eleven members of the current River Hawks can vividly remember that miserable year.
And, as incredible as it sounds, this is still a reasonably young team. The River Hawks will lose only one impact senior, team captain Riley Wetmore and his 109 career points. There's little reason to believe this team won't be just as good and perhaps even better next winter.
Bazin has accomplished all this even though the River Hawks aren't a team loaded with individual stars, at least not quite yet. There are three NHL draft picks on the team -- the most UMass Lowell has skated since the 1999-2001 seasons -- in sophomore forward Scott Wilson, freshman goaltender Connor Hellebucyk, and freshman defenseman Dimitry Sinitsyn. But that number pales in comparison to the draft picks on teams like Boston College, Boston University, and New Hampshire and some of the schools they might play in the NCAA Tournament.
The Hockey East Awards Banquet is tonight, and it would be a surprise if the River Hawks put more than two players on the 12-player All-Hockey East team and more than two on the All-Rookie team.
Junior Chad Ruhwedel should be an All-Hockey East defenseman, and junior Joseph Pendenza, who tied for fourth in the scoring derby, should be one of the forwards. Defenseman Christian Folin should be on the All-Rookie team, as should Hellebuyck, whose 1.38 average in league play (and 11-1-0 record) was the second lowest in league history behind Jimmy Howard's 1.15 mark for Maine in 2005.
What may hurt Hellebuyck's chances of making either or both all-star teams is that he didn't begin playing regularly ahead of Doug Carr, last year's runner-up as Hockey East Player of the Year, until early December and then missed another month because of an injury and a bout with mononucleosis. His chief competition for all-star status is Providence freshman Jon Gillies, who played virtually every game for the Friars and finished second to Hellebuyck in average and save percentage.
Right now the River Hawks are winning largely because they adhere to Bazin's systems and play with a high level of energy. But at the same time he's rebuilding the team with bigger and more skilled players he and his assistants, Jason Lammers and Cam Ellsworth, have been recruiting. The program's long-term future looks exceedingly promising, especially since Bazin, an alumnus, says he has no desire to use UMass Lowell as a stepping stone to another college or pro job.
Now with their first league title in their back pockets, the River Hawks will focus on winning their first Hockey East Tournament championship. If they get past Providence on Friday, they'll play in the championship game for only the third time in their history.
They are the top seed and the regular-season champ, but that doesn't mean much in Hockey East. In the first 28 years, the regular-season champ went on to win the tournament title barely half the time (15).
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