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Valuable senior experience helps UMass Lowell capture Hockey East title 03.18.17 at 11:00 pm ET
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When a team has played in this game as often as UMass Lowell has, it has something a lot of other teams might not: experience. For the senior group on the River Hawks, that rings true. Lowell has been in the last five Hockey East championship games, and the senior class has now won two of them following a 4-2 victory over Boston College on Saturday night.

That senior class that has been a part of all four contests is small, with just three players. Joe Gambardella has seen four of these games, and he scored in the latest edition, netting the dagger with 8:23 left in the second period to extend the River Hawk lead to 4-2.

“It’s always nice when you have experience, things you can learn from, and they’re not always negative,” said the senior center. “From day one we were ready to execute.”

Dylan Zink and Michael Kapla, seniors on the top defense pair, have also been a part of four title contests. Both Kapla, a captain, and Zink produced 25 assists this season for one of the more dynamic pairings in the nation. Kapla, named to the Hockey East all-tournament team,  made his mark on the championship game with an assist on Saturday night, coming on Gambardella’s 18th tally of the season.

“As good as Joseph Gambardella is up front, Michael Kapla is that on defense,” said head coach Norm Bazin. “He’s the anchor, he’s the pillar back there. Dylan [Zink] gets a lot of notoriety for his offensive game, Kapla is a good combination of defense and offense. He’s going to play for a long time after college.”

That defense pair also helped freshman goalie Tyler Wall keep the puck out of the net late in the game when the Eagles outshot Lowell 15-2 in the final frame.

Gambardella also assisted on John Edwardh’s goal, the go-ahead for the River Hawks in the second period. The forward was also named to the all-tournament team.

“He’s certainly developed over four years, he’s a substance player,” said Bazin. “Aesthetically he might not look perfect but he produces. He’s always a plus player, he’s a glue guy in the locker room and a captain.”

Bazin has seen the River Hawks in this title game for five of his six years since taking over as head coach in 2011. The 2016-2017 Hockey East Coach of the Year has been able to lead Lowell past traditional Hockey East powerhouses Boston University and Boston College to be the mainstay at the top of the conference.

It’s the first time a Hockey East team has gone to five straight title games since Maine went to seven straight from 1987-93, and the dynasty has a lot to do with the recruits Bazin has brought, and he’s in the conversation as one of the best coaches nationally. The River Hawks weren’t on the map as a contender as much as they have been in the past half decade under Bazin, and the veteran leadership from the current senior class has been the core.

“We just commit to the process,” said Gambardella. “Every day is a new day, and everyone comes to the rink everyday wanting to be better. We choose to get 1 percent better every day or 1 percent worse, and I think we’ve been going in the right direction since day one.”

Bruins prospect Ryan Fitzgerald helps BC survive another night 03.18.17 at 12:36 am ET
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Boston College hadn’t been able to beat Boston University all season, never having a single lead on the Terriers in their previous three contests. It’s a far cry from what the Eagles usually are able to do against their rival, as they hadn’t been swept in a season series in 15 years.

The Eagles made up for the previous three losses with a victory in the game that mattered most, and kept their season alive with a 3-2 win on Friday night in the Hockey East semifinals. The victory means BC still has a chance to play in the national tournament.

Without winning Hockey East, the Eagles have slim odds of getting to the NCAA tournament. They’ll face the River Hawks of UMass Lowell for the conference crown Saturday night.

The star for BC Friday night against BU was senior forward and Bruins prospect Ryan Fitzgerald. The North Reading native scored twice, including a shorthanded goal in the second period and what proved to be the game-winner early in the third. It was a welcome offensive outburst considering Fitzgerald’s goal production had dropped from 24 last season to nine entering Friday’s game.

“He’s had a good year for us,” BC coach Jerry York said. “Goal production down, but mostly because of crossbars, pipes, not lack of effort. His game’s never suffered because of the goals not coming easy. He’s forechecking well, good coverage defensively, I’m really proud of how he played on the big stage tonight.”

The center found himself involved in a postgame scrum following the final faceoff when he fell on the puck, running the clock down, and a brawl followed, leading to punches between his brother Casey Fitzgerald and BU’s Brandon Hickey.

“A little bit of a broken play and just so happened I ended up on the ice,” said Fitzgerlad. “I just hovered over it and tried to protect it for as long as possible.”

Fitzgerald extended the lead twice following BU chances, burying the Terriers before they had a chance to cut into the deficit. Fitzgerald’s first goal was shorthanded, ending any chance for BU to gain momentum by tying the game on the power play.

Scott Savage, who assisted on the first tally of the game from Julius Mattila, is another senior who got on the board to keep the season alive. Fellow seniors Austin Cangelosi and Chris Calnan also extend their careers for at least one day.

Fitzgerald, who played high school hockey at Malden Catholic, will have another opportunity to keep his collegiate campaign going Saturday night before joining the pro ranks in the Bruins organization. Despite his struggles at times this season, Fitzgerald bounced back when the Eagles needed it most.

“Anytime you can produce for your team it’s good,” said the senior. “Reflecting on the year, for me it’s one of those things where you notice the puck not going in as frequently as it has been, you need to do something else. Playing center now I’ve taken a bigger role in the D zone. If you’re not scoring, you need to do something else.”

Young River Hawks lead Lowell back to Hockey East title game 03.17.17 at 8:14 pm ET
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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.”

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With Beanpot title, Harvard continues to prove it can be national contender 02.14.17 at 9:13 am ET
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It has been well documented how much Boston University and Boston College have dominated the Beanpot, and thus the college hockey scene in Boston. The Hockey East schools boast two of the best programs in the nation, and their strength in the tournament has reflected that.

The word “legacy” might be overused in sports, but the group at Harvard this season might be creating just that. On Monday night, it was the Crimson that brought home the Beanpot title for the first time since 1993. While the victory is certainly historic, it also reflects a changing of the guard in college hockey.

“For that senior class, they want to be the group that broke the curse and leave a legacy,” said Crimson head coach Ted Donato. “They did that.”

Both BU and BC should be heading toward the national tournament, but it might be Harvard that has the best shot at success there.

“Our group felt like it was their night and they were willing to work to make sure it was their night,” said Donato. “It’s been a long time coming and I’m very happy for these guys.”

Donato, who won a Beanpot championship with Harvard in 1989 as a player, has been coaching Harvard since 2004, and it’s been a rocky road for a team that has produced plenty of talent, but hasn’t found much tournament or postseason success.

“I didn’t think it was going to take 13 years, I’ll tell you that much,” he said.

Now on an eight-game winning streak and ranked third in the PairWise, this is a Harvard team that is a force to be reckoned with.

In the program’s first season post-Jimmy Vesey, the Crimson have still found a way to get great production from its lineup through a combination of senior leadership and emerging freshmen.

With the third-ranked offense in the nation, averaging just over four goals per game, it’s no surprise to see the Crimson put a six on the scoreboard, even against a strong defensive team like BU.

The Harvard group is a close-knit bunch, as evidenced by how they spread the puck around; five different goal-scorers contributed to the six-goal night.

There are eight seniors on the Harvard roster, including Hobey Baker candidate Alexander Kerfoot, who scored in both Beanpot games. He, along with the rest of his class, hadn’t played a Beanpot night game before Monday.

“You think about it leading up to games like this and after games like this,” said  Kerfoot. “You hear a lot about the history and are proud to be part of the history, but going into games, you need to treat it like it’s any other game.”

There’s still a long way for Harvard to go; they haven’t won an NCAA tournament game or an ECAC regular-season title since 1994. But if there was ever a team to make a championship run, it could very well be this Crimson crew.

“This is a group that has really tackled making sure that our culture was right, had great leadership,” Donato said. “I think this was something they really wanted. They wanted to leave that legacy, that they were going to break the curse, so to speak. I’m happy for them.”

Now with a Beanpot title, its a feather in the cap of the Donato-led Harvard team, and they aren’t taking it lightly.

“These guys might not choose to talk about it much but I think they really wanted to win this Beanpot,” Donato said.

Beanpot: Clayton Keller extends point streak to 15 games, helps lead BU past BC 02.07.17 at 5:57 am ET
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BU's Clayton Keller has 11 goals and 14 assists during a 15-game point streak. (Timothy T. Ludwig/USA Today Sports)

BU’s Clayton Keller has 11 goals and 14 assists during a 15-game point streak. (Timothy T. Ludwig/USA Today Sports)

Boston hockey fans may be familiar with Bruins prospects Charlie McAvoy, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson and Ryan Fitzgerald, but in Monday night’s Beanpot semifinal between Boston University and Boston College, it was an Arizona Coyotes prospect who stole the spotlight.

Clayton Keller, the seventh overall selection in the 2016 NHL draft, extended his point streak to 15 games in the Terriers’ 3-1 win over BC, the third win of the year for BU over its archrival. He has 11 goals and 14 assists during the streak.

Keller’s streak ties current Bruins assistant coach Jay Pandolfo for the most consecutive games with a point in BU history. Keller, who scored his fourth shorthanded goal of the season on Monday night, is also one man-down tally shy from tying Pandolfo’s shortie record.

Keller’s scoring streak also passed Jack Eichel, who had points in 14 straight games in 2009. Any time a player is mentioned in the same breath as Eichel, especially one who plays on Comm Ave, it’s worth noting.

“It’s pretty cool, but it’s something I’m not worrying about,” said Keller. “The most important thing for me and my team is just getting ready for the next game. It’s pretty cool to do that, but not really paying attention to it.”

All in all, the freshman forward is leading BU on what might be a special run.

“He’s such a threat out there,” BU head coach David Quinn said after the game. “He’s got such great instincts and when you’re on a power play and you have him coming at you, I think you get a little nervous.”

The BU center missed a stretch in the middle of the season with a knee injury after falling awkwardly into the boards against Northeastern and didn’t return to the lineup until a December series at Vermont. With the injury in mind, there are only two games all season Keller has played in where he hasn’t tallied a point; the third game of the season at Denver and a late October matchup against Quinnipiac.

In games Keller has played this season, the Terriers are 14-4-1.

Keller gained national attention in the World Junior Championships at the end of December, when he was a key factor in the United States’ gold medal-winning run. He, along with five BU teammates, helped lead the Americans to a shootout win over Canada in the final.

Since then, Keller and his WJC teammates have led BU on an 11-2 run.

Keller’s goal on Monday night to advance BU to the Beanpot final vs. Harvard was a momentum changer; BC had earned itself a power-play chance just minutes after cutting the Terrier lead to 2-1. With a chance to steal momentum, a McAvoy pass found Keller in space and he beat his US national teammate and Eagles goalie Joseph Woll.

“Joe Woll is a guy that I’ve played with ever since I was about 10 years old,” Keller said. “I know about his game a little bit.”

McAvoy’s pass at center ice was a reminder of the chemistry between the USA teammates, and two NHL first-round draft picks from this past June.

“Charlie made a great play and found me breaking on the breakaway,” said Keller.

“Clayton’s really good on breakaways when he’s pressured, but not as much when he has time,” said Quinn. “I felt good because I knew he had a guy chasing him, he’s been pretty good on breakaways when he has that.”

Since joining the Terriers, Keller has become a leader on the ice in more ways than just as a scorer. He won a puck battle along the blue line to end an Eagles power play chance and earn the Terriers a power play themselves. His 30 points lead the team in what is already a freshman-heavy roster, but he has gone even above and beyond the rest of his class.

It’s that kind of compete level that Quinn is looking for out of his team.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a guy who has the hand-eye coordination that he has,” said Quinn. “He’s just so dangerous killing penalties, that was his fourth or fifth shorthanded of the year.”

Now Keller and his teammates have one more game against Harvard to win a Beanpot title, and it’s his and the rest of the freshman class’ first taste of the local tournament.

“It’s pretty special, especially playing Boston College, and the atmosphere, it’s pretty close to the World Juniors,” said Keller. “It was great to get the win and now we’re focused on Friday and the next game on Monday.”

Keller has a chance to don the Garden ice once more this season following the Beanpot, if the Terriers were to advance to the Hockey East semifinals. After that? Don’t be surprised to see him as a Bruins opponent in a Coyotes sweater.

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