Northeastern Huskies 4-10-1 (3-6-1) Hockey East 8th
Massachusetts Minutemen 4-11-0 (1-9-0) Hockey East 12th
It’s gut check time. I think it’s fair to say this first half of the season has been disappointing for everyone around the Massachusetts hockey program. Just four wins and last place in Hockey East is not where fans, coaches, or players had hoped to see the team at this point. Tomorrow’s non-conference game against Northeastern is a big opportunity for UMass to at least take some positive momentum into the winter break. They’ll have to find the motivation and energy from within though, because Tuesdays in December after the students are gone don’t tend to produce good Mullins crowds. Add in the team’s record and it will likely be a sparsely attended affair. It’s up to the players to find whatever motivates them, be it pride, a hatred of losing, or whatever, and bring that with them onto the ice tomorrow.
It should help that UMass already knows they’re capable of beating this Husky team. They did so back in October in what was probably Henry Dill’s best game of the season. In just his second collegiate start the freshman made 42 saves in the 3-2 win. The guys in front of him played pretty well too, clearing rebounds away from the crease and helping shutout the Northeastern power play over 7 attempts. The game saw both teams trade two goals apiece in the first 16 minutes of play before Dill and unexpected Husky starter Derek Roy took over. The game winner was eventually scored in the third by Emerson Auvenshine who was making his blueline debut for the defensively depleted Minutemen. Zack LaRue also shined offensively with a goal and an assist in the game.
The defeat at the hands of the Minutemen brought Northeastern’s record to 0-4-0 at that time. They would eventually get to 0-8-1 before finally picking up their first win against New Hampshire in mid-November. Since that time they’ve been downright respectable, going 4-2-0 in their last six with wins over #3 Minnesota at home and #16 Providence on the road. It’s been very much a team effort over that six game period, with 11 different Huskies scoring a goal. Kevin Roy and Colton Saucerman have scored two apiece during that time.
They’ve mostly gone as their defense and goaltender Clay Witt have gone during that stretch however. In their four recent wins they’ve given up just five goals total. But in their two losses, to Merrimack and Providence, Witt and the team have given up nine goals. It’s likely that tomorrow night the Minutemen will face Witt, who was hurt when they visited St Botolph Street earlier this season. Playing the Huskies is a good chance for the Minutemen to try to get their offense back on track. Northeastern is 10th among Hockey East teams in goals against with 3.27 and their penalty kill is dead last at 72.5%. Even in Northeastern’s recent six game stretch where they’ve been winning their PK is still just 74.1%. The Minutemen’s offense has sputtered since their last win against AIC in mid-November. In the 7 games since then they’ve scored just two goals per game and their power play is only converting at a rate of 10.7% (3 for 28).
It’s not just playing a poor defensive team that could give UMass an offensive spark tomorrow night. It could potentially be the new guy wearing #26 in maroon. Brandon Montour will make his long awaited debut for the Minutemen after being academically ineligible for the first semester. The reigning USHL Player of the Year and 2nd Round NHL Draft pick had 6 goals and 15 assists in 17 games for the Waterloo Blackhawks while sorting out his NCAA clearinghouse issues. Will Montour solve all of the Minutemen’s problems? No way. Especially considering he’s more of an offensive defenseman and the issues that have plagued UMass so far on the season have been overwhelming on the defensive end. Still, his addition to the team may give the players and coaches an opportunity to mentally reset and refocus on games to come with a new weapon in the lineup rather than worry what transpired in November or before.
We shouldn’t forget the players already here either. Frank Vatrano will look to start another goal streak tomorrow. His team leading seven goals have all been scored in a couple two and three game bunches, the last of which expired with Notre Dame’s shutout last weekend. All in all he’s accounted for 6 of UMass’ 21 goals from the AIC game onward and has been by far the team’s best player during that time. Hopefully the week and a half between games will allow sophomore Ray Pigozzi to recover from an upper body injury as he has six points (1 G, 5 A) in his last six games played and his presence was missed against the Irish.
In net I expect you’ll see Coach Micheletto give Dill another crack at the Huskies after his strong showing at Matthews earlier in the season. It’s still been tough to get a good gauge on the goaltending this season only because the defense in front of Dill and Steve Mastalerz has had so many problems. Despite giving up four and a half goals a game there hasn’t been a lot of nights where it felt like the game was lost by whomever got the start in the crease. Dill has played well at times all things considered and it’ll be interesting to see what happens if he gets another shot at a team he saw earlier in the season. Again, Montour wasn’t brought to Amherst for his defense. But, I don’t think he could make things any worse on that end.
I think it’s safe to say that UMass fans are desperate for anything resembling hope at this point. A win, albeit a non-conference one despite the familiar league foe, tomorrow would be the first step to fans regaining confidence in the team and perhaps a chance for the team to regain some confidence in themselves. Add in the energy around getting to see a much heralded player for the first time and hopefully the team will be able to feed off the buzz around the game, even if the energy in the building itself is minimal. I’m sure the holidays for all parties involved would be that much more enjoyable if the team went into winter break with a win. A victory seems a worthy addition to everyone’s Christmas list.
Beer The Triangle
In my last few trips to the Hangar for pregaming I couldn’t help but notice the Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin on the “Coming Soon…” list. I think I’ve been good a UMass fan this year, making it to all the home games, and have done my best to watch my language when I have my daughter on my lap even when the officiating as been awful (who’s kidding, it’s always awful). Is there any way this beer could find its way onto Stoney’s taps in time for tomorrow afternoon? I would appreciate it greatly and promise to leave Left Hand Milk Stout and cookies for you on Christmas Eve.
P.S. Could you also be generous enough to also make our Athletic Director’s Christmas wish come true so that he finds plane tickets to the West Coast in his stocking this holiday?
P.P.S If the Grapefruit Scuplin is a no-go, how about the Stone Enjoy By 12.26.14? Tis the season!
Game Preview From UMass Athletics.
Matt Vautour talks about Montour’s debut in his preview in the Gazette.
Yesterday I wrote about the commitment of goaltender Nic Renyard to UMass. Here’s a scouting report from Over The Boards from last Spring stating that Renyard has “quick feet and post to post movement, as well as some decent puck handling skills.” That link also has some very good things to say about Kurt Keats who will join the Minutemen next fall as well. The local Okotoks Western Wheel also has this story about Renyard’s commitment with some quotes from him about his choice.
Abbreviated Polls & Awards tonight.
Boston University is again the #1 team in the country after previous top ranked North Dakota split at Denver.
New Hampshire’s Grayson Downing is the Hockey East Player of the Week after his four point performance in a win against Maine on Saturday.