When UMass Lowell coach Norm Bazin sat before the media alongside players Connor Hellebuyck, Chad Ruhwedel and Scott Wilson on Saturday, the second-year bench boss looked almost bewildered.
"It's almost like a surreal experience for us," Bazin said after his River Hawks dispatched the New Hampshire Wildcats, securing Lowell's spot in the Frozen Four for the first time in school history.
Don't believe it. Bazin knows exactly what he's doing, and that's a credit to not only Bazin, but the school administrators who believed this Hockey East also-ran could rise from its old mill city surroundings and be a force in college hockey. Bazin began molding this team to be a winner from the moment he left Hamilton College (where he crafted a 48-31-7 mark in three seasons) and returned to his alma mater two years ago.
"He came in and he believed in us from day one, and he got us to believe in each other as well and he instilled some great work habits for everybody," said junior Josh Holmstrom, who was a freshman on the 2010-11 Lowell squad that went 5-25-4. "Every day that we come to the rink, we're trying to get better. That's been the goal the past two years. We didn't have anything really set in stone [as far as goals]. It was improve every day, and the results will take care of themselves. That's been one of the biggest things that he's taught everybody on the team -- just always work and try to get better every day."
Bazin not only has registered the best two-year win total ever at Lowell (52), but he has done it against a tough backdrop. Some state university trustees openly questioned whether the school should have a Division I hockey team as recently as 2007 (when the River Hawks went 8-21-7). That was before chancellor Marty Meehan -- a Lowell native and former U.S. congressman -- took the reins and empowered athletic director Dana Skinner to bolster the hockey program.
Former coach Blaise MacDonald did a commendable job, compiling winning records in 2008-09 and 2009-10, and recruited a number of the players who are now leading the current Lowell squad, including captain Riley Wetmore. However, the disastrous 2010-11 campaign resulted in MacDonald's ouster, and Bazin was brought home.
"We've got an outstanding school. I am very fortunate to be working at UMass Lowell," said Bazin, who graduated from Lowell in 1994. "We might be the storefront for the program, however there are so many exciting changes happening on campus. The tagline is 'progress in motion,' and that applies to the hockey club also."
Bazin and his River Hawks wasted little time putting Lowell back on the map, earning the program's first NCAA bid since 1996 with a 24-13-1 mark last season. They defeated Miami (Ohio) before falling to Union in the East Regional. This season, riding the momentum of a best-in-the-nation 22-3-1 stretch since Christmas, the River Hawks have taken the next step and are preparing to meet Yale in Pittsburgh on April 11.
"We're starting to develop a pretty good picture of them," said Yale coach Keith Allain, who has been studying tapes of Lowell. "Obviously they're a great team. They won the regular-season hockey. They won the league championship playoffs. And a couple of things that really stand out are the team defensive play and the pace they play at. And they're also a team, like us, that competes very, very hard. So we think it will be a great matchup."
This week, both Bazin and Allain addressed the notion of momentum, although the two squads took decidedly different routes to NCAA postseason play. Lowell, as part of its impressive post-holiday run, won its last game of the regular season to secure the Hockey East regular-season title, and then ripped off six more wins to capture the Hockey East championship and NCAA Northeast Regional crown.
Conversely, Yale has been erratic, losing five straight games in February before going on a nice five-game winning streak to end the regular season and knock St. Lawrence out of the ECAC quarterfinals. Then came two losses -- 5-0 against Union in the ECAC semifinals and 3-0 against Quinnipiac in the league consolation game -- that left Yale clinging to an NCAA bid by the narrowest of margins. The Bulldogs' ticket to the NCAA field of 16 wasn't punched until Michigan lost to Notre Dame in the CCHA finals.
"For us as a program, one of the things we want to be about is about growth. We try to get better each and every day we come to practice," Allain said. "I thought we played very good against St. Lawrence in our league championship series ... and then hit a bump in the road in [the ECAC playoffs in] Atlantic City. And I thought we were back on our game last weekend. So we see Atlantic City as an aberration."
That aberration was quickly corrected in the NCAA West Regional, in which Yale booted traditional powers Minnesota and North Dakota for its first Frozen Four invite since 1952.
"We viewed it as a tremendous opportunity," Allain said. "If you want to compete for a national championship, you have to understand that you have to beat top teams. And so we took a hard look at Minnesota and we get back to practice on Tuesday and our guys were committed, worked hard. You saw the results of that effort last weekend."
Bazin, meanwhile, sounded like a man who wanted to get right back on the ice after beating Wisconsin 6-1 and UNH 2-0 to capture the Northeast Regional flag.
"I'd like to say [momentum] carries some weight, but frankly with 10 days before our next game, that [slate] is wiped clean," Bazin said. "I think all four teams feel pretty good about themselves. They just finished off with two wins in the last two games, and everybody's on an even playing field."
Bazin said Hockey East's "ruthless" schedule has prepared the River Hawks for postseason play. "Ruthless" also describes Lowell's ability to put teams away. The River Hawks are 18-2-1 when scoring first and 17-0-1 when leading after two periods. Much of that has to do with an airtight defense and the stellar play of Lowell's freshman goaltender, Connor Hellebuyck (1.31 goals-against average, .953 save percentage, a 20-2-0 record).
"It's team play," said Wetmore, the Lowell captain. "It's not anyone doing anything individually. It's everybody buying in and doing it as a team. We have guys sacrificing their body. And obviously, Hellebuyck back there has been a rock all year. So when we do give up shots, they don't seem to get through."
If Hellebuyck and the UML defense continue their recent run of form -- one goal in the past three games -- the River Hawks might well be parading an NCAA trophy around Lowell on Patriots Day.
"A national championship would be awesome," Ruhwedel said Wednesday. "This team has just worked so hard, day in and day out, the summers. Having it pay off in the end, truly paying off, it would be something you could really hang your hat on."
Plus, an NCAA title would settle, once and for all, any lingering doubt about whether the Lowell River Hawks belong.