LOWELL -- A late-season slump cost the program a chance to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time in Norm Bazin's seven years at UMass Lowell.
For fans of a program known for peaking in March, the fall was shocking: Seven losses in the final eight games, a two-game sweep at the hands of Merrimack in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs, and a final sub-500 (17-19-0) record.
"It leaves a chip on your shoulder," said senior Connor Wilson, one of the two captains of the 2018-19 River Hawks who will open the season by hosting RIT on Friday and Saturday at the Tsongas Center.
Last season is finished. The River Hawks are intent on turning the page with two veteran goaltenders, their top three scorers returning and a hungry 12-member freshmen class.
"I like the type of kids that we have. How long it takes us to learn the system we're playing remains to be seen," said Bazin. "There's no question we need to improve and we know that. The nice thing about the start of a season is you start from scratch. We're going to get there."
Like any team, questions surround the River Hawks as they prepare to start the season. Here's five.
1. Where will the scoring emerge from?
Two seasons ago, when the River Hawks were an overtime goal from making the Frozen Four, C.J. Smith and Joe Gambardella both reached 50 points. As a team, they averaged 3.68 goals per game, the fourth best mark in the country.
Last year, however, UML fell to 30th in the nation in goals per game (2.
"I think we'll have more scoring than last year," Bazin said. "I think last year was more of a product of giving up offense because you're always chasing the game. When you're chasing the game you don't have the puck as much."
UML will rely heavily on junior Ryan Lohin (9-16-25), senior Ryan Dmowski (11-11-22) and junior Kenny Hausinger (10-10-20). A big jump in production from sophomore Charlie Levesque, who scored 12 points as a freshman, would not be surprising.
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2. Who will emerge in goal?
Two seasons ago, Tyler Wall won the most games of any Division 1 goalie in UML history when he was an unknown freshman. However, Wall struggled last season, opening the door for Christoffer Hernberg. Hernberg took advantage, earning team MVP honors after going 14-10 with a 2.08 goals against average and .921 save percentage.
"I'm looking forward to seeing them battle it out," Bazin said. "They both have the opportunity to play. The competition we have at different positions is going to pay dividends the whole way through."
3. Is UML too young on defense?
The River Hawks graduated tons of experience on the blue line with the departures of seniors Tyler Mueller (144 games), Chris Forney (135) and Tommy Panico (115). Then Niklas Folin, who would have been a senior, decided to return to his native Sweden to play pro hockey.
That's 466 games of experience gone.
The 2018-19 River Hawks have an experienced, talented defensemen in Mattias Goransson, a Sweden native. Anthony Baxter saw action in 30 games and Croix Evingson played in 16 as freshmen last winter. Six freshmen were brought in. Many had fine junior careers, but this is a step up in competition.
"It certainly is a position we're fairly young in. You know what? It's a fresh start for everyone. As you know, it's all about team defense. It starts with the goaltenders. We'll concentrate on having better team defense than last year," Bazin said.
"We're a team. I'll try to lead the young 'D' corps we have. But I'm just going to be myself," Goransson said.
4. Which freshmen will emerge?
It's impossible to predict how freshmen will develop, especially early on.
But Bazin likes this group.
Defensively, Seth Barton looks like an impact player.
The 6-foot-3 Barton was a third-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings in June.
He collected an assist in UML's 4-3 exhibition victory over Acadia and his skill is obvious.
Offensively, Reid Stefanson is coming off a solid season for Sioux Falls of the United States Hockey League and also impressed during the exhibition game.
Bazin doesn't like to rely on freshmen, but said, "I think we have several that are going to play. We hope a couple of the young guys emerge by Christmas."
5. Can the team regain its swagger?
The River Hawks didn't look like a confident team down the stretch last season. They were 1-5 in overtime games and both of their playoff losses to Merrimack came in OT.
"There's always a fine line between confidence and swagger. How do you get it back? You've just got to get better week by week, game by game, practice by practice," Wilson said.
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