BOSTON — There’s one word that you won’t hear the UMass-Lowell River Hawks say in advance of the upcoming hockey season, but even if they’re not willing to say it, there plenty of others who will for them. The word is “expectations,” but for the defending Hockey East champions, there are plenty of those entering the 2013-14 season.
UMass-Lowell is coming off of its best season in program history. The River Hawks won 28 games en route to winning the Hockey East regular-season title, the Hockey East tournament and reaching the Frozen Four. A berth in the national championship was in reach before they fell in heartbreaking fashion to eventual national champion Yale in the semifinals.
The River Hawks didn’t exactly sneak up on anyone last season. They entered the season ranked second in the preseason Hockey East coaches poll, and they didn’t disappoint. That’s unlike the 2011-12 season, when they came out of nowhere to finish in a tie for second place in the regular season after being picked to finish second-to-last. Regardless, it’s clear that the bar is set very, very high for UML this season.
“We don’t deal with expectations, we talk about goals and our goal is to win championships,” head coach Norm Bazin said Tuesday at Hockey East media day. “It has been since I was fortunate enough to be hired. The predictions and such are out of our control, so we don’t waste a whole lot of time on those.”
That may be the case, but there’s no reason not to expect a big season out of the defending Hockey East champions. Bazin has been simply phenomenal since taking over at his alma mater, with a 52-24-3 record, a pair of Hockey East coach of the year awards and a national coach of the year award to his name.
They return 22 players in 2013-14, including leading scorers Scott Wilson and Joseph Pendenza as well as starting goaltender Connor Hellebucyk. Still, there’s nothing to be taken for granted in Lowell.
“I think just like Coach said, ‘expectations’ isn’t really a word we’re going to use in the locker room,” senior forward Josh Holmstrom said. “We’ve got some goals set and we’ve got five new guys coming in, so it’s a brand new season. We have to wait and see how the team unfolds chemistry-wise. So that’s going to be a process we have to see how it all plays out.”
There are lessons to be learned from last year’s impressive run, too. There’s something to be said for learning how to win and learning what it takes to put together a complete season, one that will put a team in the position to be where it wants to be at season’s end. Even for a team like UMass-Lowell, which had a banner campaign last season, there are plenty of lessons to be applied in the upcoming season.
One area in particular the River Hawks will look to improve upon will be how they start this season. They stumbled out of the gates last season with a 4-7-1 record in their first 12 games, including a 1-4-1 mark in Hockey East. They finished the regular season on a 18-3-1 run to ride a wave of momentum into the postseason.
“Our start wasn’t great, so we learned we have to hold each other accountable and work hard,” Holmstrom added. “I think that’s the biggest thing we carry over is that’s the culture we’re demanding out of guys. Hard work and holding each other accountable. If someone’s slow on a day, you push him a little bit and we just gotta work hard.”
The hope is that it all adds up to an even more successful season, which would certainly be saying a lot. There isn’t a ton of room for improvement, even for the most concerned nit-pickers. Even the slightest bit of adjustments, however, and Lowell could be right where it wants to be.
“You’ve got room from improvement; you didn’t win your last game,” Bazin said. “You’ve got room for improvement and from there on.”
“It’s no different than last year,” Every day’s a process and we’re looking to get better. Every day we come in, we work hard and have good competition. … At the end of the season, that puts us in a position to play for some championships than we’ve done something. But it starts every day just trying to get better.”
Photo via Facebook/UMass Lowell River Hawks