For the River Hawks, the 2016-2017 hockey season was the ultimate tale of two halves. It began with a two game home series against the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs and a chance to earn some national recognition, but UMass Lowell ended up coming away with two ties.
This started what would become a very rocky first half of the season, one in which they were unable to string some wins together and had trouble beating the teams they should have beaten.
After a win against Omaha in Nebraska, the River Hawks looked like they had finally found their stride, but this was quickly turned around by a loss to Notre Dame on the backend of a two game series. The following series against the University of Connecticut Huskies similarly ended with a tie and a loss.
At this point, however, the entire season began to shift. Led by the outstanding play of Tyler Wall in net, the River Hawks would only lose four more games for the rest of the season.
Adversity in sports has the ability to improve a team, and that was exactly the case with UMass Lowell.
Along with the great play of Wall, the offense also started to click. On Dec. 9, in the first game of a series against Merrimack, the River Hawks garnered their first of seven consecutive wins, which was the longest active streak in the nation at the time.
The team then hit a bit of a hiccup: being swept by Providence in two hard fought games, followed by losses to both Northeastern and Boston University the following weekend.
“You try not to get too low or too high, and there were a lot of positives to take away from that weekend,” said UMass Lowell assistant coach Cam Ellsworth. “We tried not to let negativity take over and really have a positive outlook on the team and continued to get better.”
Once again, the River Hawks responded to this and began their late season push. In the grittiest and arguably most important win of the season, the River Hawks battled from behind on the road to beat Northeastern University, and they have not lost since.
After beating Boston College in their final regular season game, the River Hawks were in a position to have a share of the Hockey East regular season championship, which was confirmed with a Boston University win over Notre Dame on Saturday night.
UMass Lowell, Boston College and Boston University all split the regular season crown, with the River Hawks receiving the number one seed for the upcoming Hockey East tournament, as they had the most conference wins out of group.
The team relied heavily on their Hobey Baker award candidates: senior forward Joe Gambardella and junior forward C.J. Smith. But since the beginning of the second half, these players have spread the wealth much more in terms of scoring.
Freshman foward Ryan Lohin and junior forwards Jake Kamrass and John Edwardh have been extremely vital to the team’s success.
The River Hawks are not a team that is filled with draft picks or National Hockey League (NHL) prospects that will leave the university after a year or two. This team is made up of players who have may not have been recruited by as many schools as other players around the country, but now have a chip on their shoulder and want to win.
It is comparable to when a 14 or 15 seed will knock off one of the best teams in the nation during March Madness because they are made up of guys who have been there for multiple seasons and are able to take advantage of another team’s inexperience. The difference is the River Hawks have that aspect, but they also have a lot of skill.
Ellsworth also spoke about his thoughts on the season overall. He mentioned that while it is always something to celebrate when the team can win a championship, they know that they are not finished.
Ellsworth went on to discuss how this team compares to some of the other River Hawk teams he has coached in the past six years that he has been on the staff.
“There’s a lot of good things about this group,” he said. “We have some different things than we’ve had in the past; we have some higher scoring guys and some older defensemen leading us, but at the same time, we pride ourselves on the group that we have and we try to make that stronger every day.”
What lies ahead for the River Hawks at this point is somewhat unclear at the moment. Because they have secured the number one seed, they have received a bye through the first round of the Hockey East tournament and will face the lowest remaining seed in the quarterfinals, but there are still five possible teams they could end up playing.
If they are to advance past the quarterfinals, they will play in the Hockey East semi-finals at TD Garden the following weekend.
Winning the Hockey East crown is going to be their toughest test yet, as the top six teams in the conference are all ranked nationally. But it is not unfamiliar territory for UMass Lowell, as they have played in the last four conference championship games.
This is one of the best River Hawk teams UMass Lowell has ever seen, if not definitively the best, but there is still work to do.