Expectations were low for the UMass Lowell men’s hockey team entering the 2021-22 season. The River Hawks had struggled for most of the 2020-21 season before finding their footing heading into the postseason, where they dispensed Boston University and Boston College before succumbing to UMass in the Hockey East title game, 1-0.
Any belief that the team could carry momentum from that performance seemingly disappeared when several of their top players either transferred or signed pro contracts, resulting in some prognosticators, including the league’s coaches, picking Lowell to finish in the bottom half of Hockey East.
But the River Hawks have looked impressive through the first two months of the season, getting off to an 8-2-2 start, including 6-1 in league play, to climb to 15th in the national rankings.
“We don’t pay too much attention to the outside noise,” said coach Norm Bazin. “We try to manage our group and grow our group. So far, we’ve had a good start, and that’s what it is, it’s just a start.”
While much had been made about the talent that departed in the offseason, the team has benefitted from a couple of transfers into the program. Both forward Ryan Brushett and defenseman Nick Austin have appeared in all 12 games this season. Brushett came over as a junior from Omaha and contributed three goals and four assists. Austin is a graduate transfer form Colgate who has bolstered the defense.
Goalie Owen Savory might be having the biggest impact. He arrived for the second semester last season from RPI after the Engineers had canceled their season. It was not a smooth transition at first, and Henry Welsch emerged as the goaltender for the stretch run to last year’s conference title game.
“You take anybody who hasn’t practiced and steps in halfway through the season, they’re going to be rusty, they’re going to be out of sorts. It’s just normal,” said Bazin. “Hockey’s not the type of sport where you can just walk in after not competing for six months.”
With a full offseason and preseason to get acclimated to Lowell, Savory has turned it around this season, going 7-1-1 with a 1.10 goals against average and a .954 save percentage. He was named the Hockey East goalie of the month for October and again in November. In conference play, he leads with three shutouts, a .86 GAA and a .966 save percentage.
Bazin has confidence in both Savory and Welsch going forward.
“I think it’s one of those things where you keep having them compete in practice and you play the guy that gives you the best chance to be successful,” said Bazin.
It turns out there was quite a bit of talent returning as well. Junior Andre Lee leads the River Hawks with with eight goals and a pair of assists. Carl Berglund, Reid Stefanson, Connor Sodergren and captain Lucas Condotta also drew praise from Bazin.
Next up is a a home-and-home series with No. 14 UMass (7-4-1), beginning Friday night at Tsongas Center. The Minutemen are down five of their top nine forwards, although there was a possibility that two could return, but coach Greg Carvel wasn’t counting on it, and will instead shift defensemen Ty Farmer and sophomore Linden Alger to forward.
“We’re really banged up, and it’s not getting any better,” said Carvel. ”We need those guys on the back end to be extremely good. We can still win without all these forwards if our goalie and defensemen play well.”
UNH on a roll
UNH has gone 4-1-1 in its last six games to improve to 7-7-1 heading into this weekend’s home-and-home series with Boston University (4-9-2), which begins Friday at Agganis Arena. The Wildcats have posted wins over UMass, Providence and Harvard this season. Coach Mike Souza has been getting outstanding play in net, whether it’s been senior Mike Robinson or junior David Fessenden. Robinson has been named to conference’s goalie of the week in each of the last two weeks.
“It’s nice to have them both. It’s a good problem to have,” said Souza, whose squad is averaging just 1.7 goals a game. “I wish we could take care of things at the other end of the ice and make life a little easier for those two.”
NU, Providence to square off
No. 16 Northeastern (11-4-1) begins a home-and-home series at No. 13 Providence (12-5-0) Friday night. The Huskies are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games, including five wins in Hockey East play. Goalie Devon Levi was named the national rookie of the month after going 6-1- 1 with a 1.11 goals against average and .959 save percentage in eight games played in November. He allowed two goals or fewer in every game played, and recorded his fifth shutout of the season.
For the Friars, Brett Berard was named the conference’s player of the month. The sophomore forward posted six points in his last two games and leads Hockey East with 10 goals and 11 assists in 17 games. Providence enters the weekend on a six-game winning streak, their longest since winning eight-consecutive games during the 2016-17 season.
Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney.