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A Trip to Michigan Brings Out Chemistry in UMass-Lowell Hockey Team

UMass-Lowell will play four games in seven days beginning Saturday.

Joseph Pendenza and the River Hawks have had more to celebrate the last two weekends.
Joseph Pendenza and the River Hawks have had more to celebrate the last two weekends.
Justin K. Aller

Lowell, Mass. -- Fans that jumped off the bandwagon after just two weeks are now probably desperately looking to get back on board. Coming off an appearance in the Frozen Four and regular season and tournament titles in Hockey East, expectations were sky high for the River Hawks.

Starting 1-3, including an upset loss against the perceived worst team in college hockey, certainly wasn't how UMass-Lowell envisioned the season starting, but a trip to Michigan has brought the team together and helped forge an identity for this team.

"Obviously it was kind of a slow start for us," deadpanned junior Scott Wilson. "We wanted a better outcome against Sacred Heart," added the Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick.

Norm Bazin's team headed to Michigan two games under 500, but returned to Lowell at the 500 mark. The River Hawks downed Michigan State, 4-1 in the first game of the weekend to break a two-game losing streak. The next night UML bested Michigan, one of the best teams in the country, 2-1.

"The trip [to Michigan] last weekend was a good bonding experience. To have success while you're bonding makes it even better," said Bazin, the 2013 Spencer Penrose Award winner.

Obviously talent and preparedness are big components of a college hockey team, but team chemistry is an important, albeit often overlooked element.

"I think all the guys came together," said Wilson. The camaraderie between teammates is the special part of sports that helps teams form bonds and gives extra incentive to play for each other. Senior captain Josh Holmstrom said the team had plenty of time to gel even more on the road trip.

"Going on the road last weekend was really good for us. It brings guys closer with spending time together in the hotels and in the airports. You really get to know the guys. It's always a good thing. Guys look forward to getting on the road. The guys are playing for each other now more than we were earlier in the season," said the Colorado Springs, Colo. native.

Over the past several years Bazin has harped on the need to play with purpose and intensity. He believes his team has gotten back to that since maybe straying in the first few weeks. "Our compete level has constantly improved," he said.

One of the strengths since Bazin took over in the Mill City has been the team adhering to his defensive philosophy and orchestrating the game plan. The team might have needed a few games to realize the importance of his message.

"We got back to the basics in our defensive zone. We're playing a structured game now," said Wilson, the former Hockey East Rookie of the Year. "I think we're on a roll right now," he added.

Often overlooked by outsiders is the fact that although UMass-Lowell lost so few regulars from last season's team, two key players did move on. Forward Riley Wetmore graduated, and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel gave up his final year of collegiate eligibility to sign with the Buffalo Sabres organization.

Despite the slow start Bazin never wavered in his belief in his team. "I like the group of kids. From day one I've liked the group of kids in there. It takes some successes and adversity to bring out chemistry. We're seeing all of it in the early going."

UMass-Lowell will look to add to its season-long four game winning streak on Saturday night when it hosts Northeastern at 7 p.m. at the Tsongas Arena.

Jeff Cox covers college and junior hockey, NCAA recruiting, NHL Draft prospects and the AHL for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.