Wednesday night wasn't the prettiest of victories for UMass Lowell, but Norm Bazin's team remained undefeated in Hockey East play with a 6-4 win over visiting UConn at the Tsongas Center. Despite not playing its best hockey the River Hawks dominated play at even strength and left a solid impression on the Huskies.
"Of all the teams we've played I think that's the most complete team we've played," complimented UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh. It's certainly high praise for the River Hawks as the Huskies have also faced Boston University, Boston College and first place Vermont.
UMass Lowell outshot Connecticut, 30-14, while the teams were skating five-on-five and seemingly hemmed the Huskies in their own end for long stretches of play. There were a few moments of sloppy play from the River Hawks, but overall, it was just another display of a Norm Bazin coached team doing all the little things and executing the game plan to perfection.
UMass Lowell gets pucks in deep, cycles well and is constantly putting pressure on its opponents in all three zones, but where it was really noticeable on Wednesday night was in the neutral zone. It seemed as if every time UConn brought the puck up ice, a Lowell player was right on the puck carrier.
Lowell Protects Leads
The two-time defending Hockey East Tournament Champions have been hard to beat no matter what the circumstance, but playing from behind against UMass Lowell is not advised. In the four years of Bazin's tenure at Lowell the River Hawks are 54-2-6 when leading after one period and 67-2-4 when ahead after 40 minutes. UMass Lowell has not blown a lead when up after 20 minutes since Bazin's first season in 2011-2012.
Bazin's teams have been so successful when leading because of the constant pressure and ability to keep pucks away from their opponents. Even when not racking up a lot of shots on goal themselves, Lowell has an innate ability to keep opposing teams from gaining quality scoring chances.
"They put so much pressure on you for 60 minutes that you really have to be on your toes and play exceptionally well," explained Cavanaugh.
As good as Michael Kapla was last season en route to being recognized as a Hockey East All-Rookie performer, he has been even better this season. It's not just about the points either. The Eau Claire, Wis. native has three goals and eight assists and is a team-leading +11.
His prowess at both ends of the ice was on display Wednesday night. He assisted on Michael Louria's second period goal that gave the River Hawks a 3-1 lead. On the play he did a nice job stepping up to keep the puck in the UConn zone before drawing three Huskie defenders towards him. Then he zipped a pass right onto the tape of Louria's stick for a quick shot into the back of the net.
Defensively he was solid in his own zone. His size won't intimidate opposing players, but he does a good job limiting space and in containment. He is very efficient in gap control and doesn't make any bone-jarring hits, but his physical presence is enough to make a difference.
Huskies Close First Half
With Wednesday's 6-4 loss the first half of the season is over the University of Connecticut in its first foray into Hockey East. As Mike Cavanaugh said after the game UConn had to adjust to seeing top notch competition on a nightly basis.
Cavanaugh, in his second season as UConn's head coach after coming over from nearly two decades at Boston College, led his team to upset wins over Quinnipiac, BC and Vermont. The Huskies had other close calls against upper echelon teams such Boston University and Merrimack.
Ultimately this first season in Hockey East will be used as a building block for the future. UConn will likely pull off a few more upsets in the second half while struggling to play a complete 60 minutes on a nightly basis.
He was -2 on the evening, but a continued bright spot for the Huskies remains the breakout ability of freshman Johnny Austin who arrived in Storrs right out of Minnesota high school hockey. He's made his fair share of mistakes in his own zone, but that is only to be expected for someone who was playing high school hockey last winter.
The Benilde St. Margaret alum is good skater with good vision who efficiently moves the puck up ice and helps in the transition game. At 5-9, Austin is dramatically shorter than most of the rest of the UConn defensive corp, but he brings an element with the puck on his stick that was missing from the Huskie blue line last season.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.