By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.
By CHAZ SCOGGINS
LOWELL - For two long winters the UMass Lowell hockey team had to grin and bear it through back-to-back 20-loss seasons. Now it's time to win and share it with their incredibly patient fans.
If the River Hawks don't play in the NCAA Division I Tournament next spring, there will be a lot of disappointed faces on campus and throughout the Merrimack Valley.
'If we stay healthy and get the goaltending I think we will, I don't see how we couldn't make the NCAA Tournament,' UML coach Blaise MacDonald boldly suggested.
'Without question, that's our goal. And it's a very achievable goal.'
'It is a team goal,' affirmed junior forward Andrew Martin, who scored 20 goals and 56 points in his first two seasons at UMass Lowell while the program went through a rebuilding phase. 'We have high expectations.
'Sometimes those expectations are unrealistic. But we feel they're realistic for us.'
UMass Lowell had the youngest team in Division I college hockey last winter, skating 18 freshmen and sophomores most nights, and the River Hawks still managed to post a 5-5-3 record on the ice against nationally-ranked teams. They had a winning record at 12-11-3 in late January when they learned they had been skating an ineligible player and were forced to forfeit nine games, five of them victories.
That gutted their season and cost them a third-place finish in Hockey East.
Having lost no key players from last year's squad, and with the arrival of freshman goaltender Peter Vetri, the River Hawks feel they are positioned not only for a winning season but one that could get them into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996.
At least one national poll agrees. The River Hawks were ranked 15th in the nation in the USA Today/College Hockey Magazine preseason poll, the first time they've been ranked since the end of the 2002 season.
Those freshmen and sophomores from last winter are now experienced sophomores and juniors.
'We will have 12 very good forwards, and our 10th, 11th, and 12th forwards are good enough to win games for us,' MacDonald said.
Juniors Elias Godoy (18-23-41), Ben Walter (18-16-34), Martin (10-24-34), Danny O'Brien (7-15-22), and Mark Pandolfo (13-6-19) are all back, along with sophomore Jason Tejchma (9-14-23), who was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie team last winter.
The River Hawks will be expecting increased production from juniors Bobby Robins, Brad King, Peter Hanlon, and Brian Bova, and sophomores Todd Fletcher, Rene Gauthier, and Chris Fontas.
Junior Matt Walsh, a transfer from UMass Amherst, and sophomore Jeremy Hall, a highly-regarded transfer from Niagara who will become eligible in the second semester, will provide more depth up front.
Sophomore Cleve Kinley (4-11-15), who also made the All-Rookie team, heads a returning group of experienced defensemen that includes senior Peter Tormey; juniors Matt Collar, Kim Brandvold, and Bobby McCabe; and sophomores Jake Pence and Adam Stanieich.
The goaltending was solid last year, and senior Chris Davidson (2.87, .896, 2 shutouts) and junior John Yaros (2.83, .907) are both back. But they will be pushed by Vetri, the former Lawrence Academy star from Windham, N.H., who was the top goalie in the British Columbia Hockey League last winter.
'For the first time since I've been here, there is fierce competition between the goalies, and that should benefit all of them,' said MacDonald. 'But I believe Peter Vetri has the ability to have the same impact on our program that Dwayne Roloson had when he was here.'
The pressure to excel will be on the goalies.
'You don't finish in the top three in this league without real good goaltending,' MacDonald acknowledged. 'We can't have average goaltending and get anywhere.'
Aside from Vetri, a small group of freshmen will also be vying for playing time.
The player with the potential to make the biggest immediate impact is defenseman Grant Farrell, who scored 25 goals in 56 games in the Alberta Junior Hockey League and set a league record for power-play goals. Kelly Sullivan doesn't have the same offensive skills but has strong defensive credentials.
'They're both going to be real good defensemen here over the course of their careers,' MacDonald said. 'How much they play now depends on how quickly they adapt to this level.'
Paul D'Agostino, who had 56 points in the Eastern Junior Hockey League last winter, is the lone freshmen forward on the team.
'I think we're primed to be one of the top teams in Hockey East,' MacDonald concluded. 'I think we're ready to get to the FleetCenter (in March) and beyond.'