As the post-season starts this weekend for Hockey East Tri-Regular Season Champion UMass Lowell, there’s a burning desire to erase the memories of the past two Hockey East championship games.
The River Hawks lost to Northeastern in 2016 and Boston University in 2015. Coming up just short has provided extra motivation for the team’s leading goal scorer, junior left wing C.J. Smith.
"It kind of eats at you, but it helps you grow and mature. It gives you that extra experience of playing in that final game."
It's not as if the River Hawks were too far away from the ultimate prize the last two seasons. They were also a game away from a second trip to the Frozen Four in four seasons. Smith said it's doing the little things and keeping it simple that will lead to more success this year.
"Being good in our defensive zone, being strong on pucks, and advancing pucks," Smith explained. "We’ve done a good job scoring goals this year. If we can keep pucks out of the net and score more goals, we’re going to win some games."
After earning a bye through the first round of the Hockey East Tournament, Smith and his teammates will welcome the University of New Hampshire to the Tsongas Arena this weekend for a best-of-three quarterfinal series.
Smith and his linemates, senior center Joe Gambardella and junior John Edwardh, will have a chance to go toe-to-toe with UNH's first line, one of the more dynamic lines in the country, led by Tyler Kelleher.
"You always like to play against the best players. That’s what is fun about hockey," Smith explained. "You want to be the best and play against the best. It’s something you don’t try to think too much about. You just go out there and try to help your team win, but it’s always a little added incentive when you can play against a really good player."
The River Hawks are riding a seven-game winning streak heading into this weekend, including a sweep of Boston College in the final weekend of the regular season that propelled the team to the first seed.
"We didn’t really look at the standings going into the last weekend. We said the playoffs start now and it’s playoffs mentality. We ended up coming out on top. That season is over and we’re looking for a new season now," said Smith.
While UNH's Kelleher and Northeastern's big guns have generated most of the headlines this season, Smith and Gambardella have quietly produced some big numbers of their own. Both players surpassed the century mark for points in their careers earlier this season.
"Those two compliment each other. Gambardella is more of a passer. C.J. is more of a finisher," said UMass Lowell coach Norm Bazin.
The two have been on a line with each other for the majority of three seasons now which has bred familiarity and a keen sense of where the other is going to be on the ice.
"We work really well together. There is good chemistry there. We know what we are going to do," Smith began.
"We get pucks in the corners. If you’ve ever watched Joe play, he’s always first in there and I don’t think the kid has ever lost a battle. I know he’s going to come out with the puck. I have a lot of trust in him. He knows where I’m going to end up being. It works well together," Smith continued.
Smith has led the River Hawks in goal scoring in each of his first three seasons in Lowell. He went from 16 goals as a freshman to 17 as a sophomore. This year, he's found the back of the net 18 times. While he has a quick stick and can be shifty with the puck, it's what he's doing when he doesn't have the puck that has impressed his coach.
"C.J. has increased his production this year because he’s being more effective away from the puck. There’s no question in my mind that he will continue to be more effective with the puck if he continues to pay attention to his play away from the puck," Bazin commented.
"It’s been good all year and improved from the past. He’s just starting to realize his potential as a hockey player based on his play away from the puck," added the sixth year bench boss of his alma mater.
Smith thinks his game has become more well-rounded as he's developed at UMass Lowell. He agrees with his coach that his play away from the puck has become better and a bigger part of his game since arriving at Lowell from the USHL's Chicago Steel.
"You can tell over the last few years I’ve matured a lot in all three zones. I feel I’ve gotten a lot better in the neutral zone and defensive zone especially," Smith said.
"I’d say I have a skilled side and a goal scoring side, but I also like to get to the dirty areas and play gritty. I like to be annoying and be a pest out there. I try to hound the puck all over in all three zones," added the Des Moines, Iowa native.
Bazin didn't shy away from touting Smith, who is shamefully underrated for the type of player he is.
"He’s definitely one of the top finishers in Hockey East, a league full of very good hockey players. He’s got to be one of the elite hockey players in Hockey East," Bazin said.
Whether it is after this season or next, an NHL team is going to give Smith the opportunity to show he can produce on the game's biggest stage, but for now the River Hawks have the dynamic goal scorer on their side.