The River Hawks had a tough task ahead with the loss of a large senior class, including goalie Kevin Boyle, heading into the 2016-17 season. After falling in the Hockey East championship game to Northeastern last season, it seemed it would be difficult to return to a similar spot while having to rely on freshmen.
Yet, that’s exactly where the River Hawks are, heading back to the conference title game with a 5-1 dismantling of Notre Dame in the semifinals on Friday night, led by that freshman group that also helped them top New Hampshire the week before.
One full line of freshmen — listed on the line chart as the fourth line, but in reality closer to the second or third line — has emerged over the last few weeks, especially against UNH and Notre Dame. Norm Bazin, fresh off Hockey East Coach of the Year honors, kept that group of Ryan Lohin, Colin O’Neill and Kenny Hausinger together on Friday night, and it paid dividends in the victory.
“I laugh when you say fourth line, because he’s quite a player,” Bazin said when asked about Lohin. “I’m not sure who is our fourth line, it depends on the night. He’s good away from the puck, he’s good at faceoffs, he’s excellent as far as scrums and he’s got a good stick. So it’s a good combination, he’s also on the first unit penalty kill, which is a big statement for a freshman.”
With two goals in the first period, the all-freshman line not only gave the River Hawks the advantage, but they helped Lowell rebound from what could have been a deflating first tally for the Irish. Jack Jenkins, a sophomore forward, scored from center ice, slipping the puck past freshman goalie Tyler Wall to open the scoring early in the first.
Wall went on to make 19 saves in the game, facing 14 shots in the second period and turning them all aside.
“I’m not surprised at all,” said senior Joe Gambardella of how Wall responded. “He’s been a great goaltender for us all year long. That’s the way the game of hockey works, sometimes you get some unfortunate bounces. He did a really good job of being calm and collected in the net.”
It took 25 seconds for the River Hawks, and Wall’s classmate O’Neill, to respond. Later on in the period, Lohin was able to push the puck past Cal Petersen to take the first Lowell lead of the night.
“I think the leadership, Joe [Gambardella] and the others, they’ve done a good job with us,” said Lohin. “Keeping us calm, helping us know what to expect day in and day out.”
Lohin was able to cycle down low the entire game and create traffic around Petersen, which directly led to two of the River Hawks’ goals.
“I think any time you play with a good goaltender on the other side you want to get traffic,” said Lohin. “It’s going to be tough to beat on a straight shot. I wanted to get in front and create chaos out front. I think we did a good job of that, we’ll have to do that again tomorrow night regardless of who we face.”
Hausinger, the third member of that all-freshman line, assisted on the River Hawks’ fourth goal of the night, with 1:08 left in the second period as he connected with senior defender Michael Kapla to extend a 4-1 lead.
It’s not the first stellar performance from the first-year group, as they combined for four goals in an 8-2 Game 3 victory over New Hampshire to advance to the Hockey East semifinals last Sunday.
Nick Marin, another freshman, scored the fifth River Hawk goal of the night early in the third period. It was the second goal of the season for the Shrewsbury native.
Lohin, a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, had 23 points in the regular season. Hausinger had 16 and O’Neill had seven, including just two goals.
“It’s awesome anytime anyone contributes,” said Gambardella. “At this point in the season, we don’t consider any freshmen to be freshmen. They’ve done a good job leading their class, basically being sophomores at this point. They’ve done really well all season, we couldn’t be any happier.”