LOWELL — Tyler Wall made a point of front-loading his tougher courses — Introduction to Mechanical Engineering, Chemistry, Calculus — in his first semester.
“I knew the second semester would be a little more busy,” he said.
March is exam time for UMass Lowell’s hockey team, and history tells the River Hawks that their on-ice tests will become increasingly more difficult.
“These guys know,” said coach Norm Bazin, whose top-seeded varsity takes on 10th-seeded New Hampshire Friday night in the opener of their Hockey East quarterfinal series at Tsongas Center. “We did a very good job with our nonconference schedule. We did a very good job with the regular-season schedule. Those two seasons are over. That’s taken care of.”
After a week off to catch their breath after soaring from fifth to first in the conference standings and all but locking up their fifth NCAA Tournament berth in six years, the River Hawks want to continue their recent tradition as perennial Frozen Four contenders. And Wall, their unflappable and imposing freshman goaltender who lives up to his last name, will be the man amid the hurly-burly.
Wall, who hails from the Tomato Capital of Canada (Leamington, Ontario), is the latest in a line of talented backstops — Doug Carr, Connor Hellebuyck, Kevin Boyle — who have thrust UMass Lowell’s program into the national forefront and kept it there. He was the focal point of a flawless February (7-0-0) during which the River Hawks beat conference cochampions Boston University and Boston College (twice) after a four-game stumble.
“Lulls in your season and adversity is very healthy for your team to go through,” observed Bazin. “Mind you, it’s horrific when you’re in the middle of it and you never think that you’re going to get out of it. Winning seven, going on a four-game slump, and winning seven was no script that I was trying to follow.”
Much of UML’s ongoing run can be credited to Wall’s uncommon sangfroid under duress.
“My mom is a pretty calm person, so I get my poise from her,” said the Rangers draftee, who was only 18 when he turned up on campus last summer. “That’s the biggest advantage I have. When I’m on the ice, I tend to be pretty relaxed and I think that helps me.”
Poise is an integral part of puck-stopping, particularly at college hockey’s top level.
“That’s recruited,” said Bazin, whose goalie coach, Cam Ellsworth, is from Leamington and knew all about Wall. “We love the fact that Tyler is calm under pressure. We saw it in juniors and he’s shown some of that here. Demeanor is a big part of the recruiting process.”
Wall was committed to UML months before New York took him in last year’s sixth round.
“I had a couple of interviews with the Rangers, but I wasn’t expecting to get drafted because I wasn’t anywhere near high on the rankings list,” he said. “I wasn’t going to be really disappointed if I didn’t get drafted, so I guess that made getting drafted a huge surprise.
“But my path generally stayed the same. Either way, I had planned to come here.”
In the Wall household, college clearly takes precedence over the pros.
“My parents have always been strong believers in school first, hockey second,” he said. “When I was a kid, if I tried to fake sick, they wouldn’t let me go to practice. So academics always were a priority for me.”
Wall, who’d watched Lowell play Michigan when he was a midget player, checked out both the college’s curriculum and what the possibilities might be on the ice.
“I did a little bit of research on the goalies,” he said, “but I knew no matter what that I’d have to earn my spot and do everything I could to make myself the best.”
With the graduation of Boyle, who won 42 games in two seasons, the job was up for grabs among four contenders.
“Nobody was guaranteed anything,” said Bazin, who has played all four goalies. “He had to earn it. Everyone got an opportunity, and he made the most of his and that’s why he gets the bulk of the time.”
Wall, who has started 27 of the team’s 34 games (and appeared in 30), has posted a .917 save percentage and 2.11 goals-against average. He got the call on the second night against Minnesota-Duluth before 4,600 at Tsongas Center, his first time before a crowd of that size in a building that large.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Wall, who made 40 saves in a 1-1 draw, 19 of them in the third period. “I was pretty nervous but I knew I could rely on the team, and they were great in front of me.
“They made my first game a lot more relaxing. They kept the shots to the outside for the most part. So it broke me into the college experience.”
What Wall quickly learned was that on a squad scoring nearly four goals a game, he doesn’t have to do everything himself.
“He’s got 20 teammates,” said Bazin. “He’s not alone out there.”
So when the River Hawks were grounded in late January, losing to Providence twice, then to Northeastern and BU, Wall remained unruffled.
“The seniors took hold and said, don’t worry, we’re not out of this,” he said. “Then Coach said that some of the past Frozen Four winners all went through losing skids and still managed to win. We got the win against UNH [8-2], and then after BU, we were pretty pumped. That got the ball rolling.”
Lowell’s late surge earned it a piece of the conference crown with BC and BU for the first time in four years and the top seed on a tiebreaker. No matter what happens in the Hockey East tournament, the River Hawks’ Pairwise ranking (sixth) is strong enough that they’ll be playing somewhere at month’s end and possibly into April.
That’s what Wall figured when he lined up his courses last summer.
“I tried to make my first semester a little bit harder and second one a little bit easier,” he said.
Materials science can wait until the fall. Until further notice, hockey is the more demanding assignment.John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.