The UMass-Lowell hockey team has experienced many program firsts this season, including winning both the Hockey East Regular Season and Tournament Championships. For the first time in program history the Riverhawks will be in the NCAA Division I Tournament in consecutive seasons.
Norm Bazin, in his second season at the helm and a former player on the UML 1994 NCAA Tournament team, has elevated the program to heights totally unexpected just two years ago. Last season the Riverhawks defeated Miami in the first round of the East Regional in Bridgeport before bowing out to Union in the regional final.
This season the expectations are different. While the Riverhawks are the favorites to win the Northeast Regional in Manchester, NH, it will not be an easy task to face Wisconsin in the first round followed by a potential match-up with either New Hampshire or Denver.
UMass-Lowell and Wisconsin are the two hottest teams in the country. The UML Riverhawks are 22-3-1 since December 8th and have had multiple and long winning streaks. The Wisconsin Badgers are 21-5-2 since December 13th and are winners of the WCHA Tournament. Wisconsin freshman Nic Kerdiles missed the first 10 games of the season due to an NCAA rules infraction committed at the NHL Draft. Since becoming eligible, the US National Development product has 10 goals and 22 assists in 31 games. Sophomore goaltender Joel Rumpel has been a big part of the Badgers run recently. The Swift Current, Saskatchewan native is 16-8-4 with a 1.85 goals against average and a .933 save percentage.
If UML gets through the tough opening round game, they will face either a New Hampshire team playing in its own backyard or a Denver team loaded with talent from the WCHA.
The Riverhawks will look to use their balanced scoring, tight defense and tremendous goaltending to overcome a difficult bracket and reach the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh.
Juniors Joseph Pendenza and Josh Holmstrom are the catalysts on one of the lines while senior Riley Wetmore and junior Derek Arnold lead another line. Sophomore Scott Wilson, a Penguins draft pick, is on still another line and the most dangerous player on the ice, especially on the power play while on the ice with Wetmore and Arnold.
Junior Chad Ruhwedel leads a very tight defense that blocks a ton of shots and executes the game plan to perfection. The UML defense really bottles up the neutral zone and makes it hard for opponents to log significant time in the UML end.
Freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has been terrific since taking over the number one job from last year's incumbent Doug Carr. The Commerce, Mich. native is 18-2-0 with a 1.39 goals against average and .949 save percentage. The Winnipeg Jets prospect is rarely out of position and really sucks up rebound opportunities.
It is a tough draw; but, if any Hockey East team is prepared for it this season, it is the UMass-Lowell Riverhawks.
Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.