UMass-Lowell has won the Hockey East Regular Season and Tournament Championship for the first time in program history and is now set to play in the NCAA Tournament for two consecutive seasons, another first in UML's history.
"We're very excited to have been selected to the NCAA Tournament. Last week was a high for our team, and it was a real high for UMass-Lowell in general," said second year head coach Norm Bazin.
Freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has gotten much of the recognition and rightfully so. He has been superb, posting an 18-2-0 record with a 1.39 goals against average and a .949 save percentage. He has done a tremendous job with rebound control and has made some big time saves along the way.
Bazin was quick to point out the importance of his forwards and defensemen doing the little things that contribute to victories and allow a goaltender to do his job.
"Scott [Wilson] has really bought in. All our guys have really bought into playing defense. When the other guys see a guy like Scott who has so much skill getting down and blocking a shot, they want to do it too," said Bazin. In the final minutes of the Hockey East Finals, protecting a one-goal lead over BU, the River Hawks blocked a ton of shots.
"Our defense with some added size has kept some shots outside and when you do that, you have a chance. They're pretty poised under pressure. They're playing beyond their years right now," said Bazin.
That has been one of the keys to the River Hawks' success all season. UML has really bottled up their opponents in the neutral zone. The defensive scheme and the correct execution of it prevents opponents from logging much time in Hellebuyck's end.
Junior defenseman Chad Ruhwedel has had a terrific year, being acknowledged as an All-Hockey East First Team performer. The alternate captain from San Diego, Calif. has been a terrific leader for a young defense. "He's our oldest defenseman in terms of years. He's basically our senior, since we don't have any senior defensemen. He's not a real vocal guy, but he leads by example. We count on him for leadership on and off the ice."
In addition to being a great leader, Ruhwedel contributes to the transition game. The undersized defenseman has seven goals and 15 assists on the year. In the waning moments of the River Hawks' 2-1 victory over Providence in the semi-finals of the Hockey East championship, he made a key clearing play up the right side. Ruhwedel logs a ton of minutes, and Wisconsin forwards will see a lot of him on the ice.
Bazin realizes what a tough opponent Wisconsin will be in the first round, but also emphasizes that the tough grind of the Hockey East season has prepared the River Hawks for the national tournament. "Wisconsin is going to be a great opponent. We feel our bracket is chock full of great teams. We feel Hockey East has been such a great league this year that it has prepared us well. They're the WCHA [Champion]. They're going to give us all we can handle," said the second year coach.
UMass-Lowell will encounter a Wisconsin team that is almost as hot as they themselves are in the second half. Similar to UML, the Badgers focus on playing tight defense. Coach Bazin said, "Having been at Colorado College [as an assistant] for eight years, I'm familiar with what they do. Team defense is their pillar. They have strong goalkeeping and great team defense."
Bazin feels more comfortable entering the national tournament this season as opposed to last year. "We feel that we're a stronger threat than we were last year. We've got solid goaltending and offensive contributions from a lot of sources," said Bazin.
Another advantage for Bazin's team will be playing closer to their Lowell campus. "We're ecstatic that we're able to allow our fans to become part of the experience. It allows the River Hawk nation to be part of our run, and it can't do anything but help us. The Verizon Wireless Arena is a great venue, and we're excited to make the short jaunt to Manchester," stated Bazin.
Bazin is pleased that the team's fans will be there to provide a lift to his team. "I'm not privy to the exact numbers, but I believe it will be between 500-1000 fans. They gobbled up the tickets very quickly. I'm also sure that UNH will have a great following as well. It could be one of the great sites in the NCAA Tournament. Our fans have been great all year long. Both the students and community really bring it to life. It should give us a lift," explained Bazin.
Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.