Merrimack College Warriors 5-1-2 (1-1-2) Hockey East T-5th
Massachusetts Minutemen 6-2-1 (2-1-1) Hockey East 4th
The Massachusetts Minutemen will look to build off last weekend’s sweep of league foe UConn when they take on another couple Hockey East opponents. Friday night they’ll host the surprising #14 Merrimack Warriors and then will take a day off before heading up to Burlington to take on the Vermont Catamounts for a Sunday afternoon affair. A strong performance against a couple talented teams could result in UMass breaking into the national rankings.
The early season performance of the Minutemen have been a surprise around the league, but Merrimack’s early record has likely raised more eyebrows. The Warriors were picked to finish 11th in the league, just ahead of the Minutemen. They began their season with a home sweep versus Clarkson and St Lawrence. Both of the North Country teams are improved this year and are currently ranked. They followed that up with two ties in a home and home versus nearby rival and top ten ranked Lowell. The next weekend they would beat Boston University but fall to UNH before sweeping an Atlantic Hockey road trip against Bentley and Canisius last weekend.
As the usually do, Merrimack is succeeding with a very good defense. They are allowing a national low 23 shots on goal per game. Only 1.75 of those shots are finding the back of the net, 7th best in the country. Even a man down they’re doing well with a .929 penalty kill, 5th best in the country. Key in that defensive play is sophomore goaltender Colin Delia, who has a .924 save percentage on the season and a 1.73 goals against average.
The Warriors are averaging 3.75 goals scored per game and are led offensively by senior Ben Bahe who leads them in both goals (4) and points (10). The Warriors are only 7th among Hockey East teams in scoring, but that’s still good enough to be 21st nationally. Of course the other player to watch out for on offense is Brett Snively who is coming off a strong freshman season with 2 goals and 8 points so far in the 8 Warrior games. Merrimack does not represent much of a power play threat, converting just twice on 30 chances this season for a fourth worst 6.7% nationally.
Merrimack will be an interesting test for the Minutemen. When you look at the teams that have let in the least amount of goals nationally you have Boston College first, Yale, tied for 5th, and Merrimack 7th. UMass lost 7-0 against BC and 6-1 against Yale. So far, against pretty good competition, the Warriors have been among the best in the country when it comes to defense and UMass has struggled against the best. Will UMass continue to struggle against a team that executes as well defensively as Merrimack? We’ll see.
The other thing to keep an eye on Friday is what happens to Austin Plevy. The UMass freshman originally committed to play for Merrimack and Warrior coach Mark Dennehy. He went as far as to enroll in the school, spend the summer working out with the team, and begin fall classes before reconsidering and leaving North Andover. Plevy had a very good couple games last weekend against UConn, good enough to be named Hockey East Rookie of the Week. Does playing against his would-be team serve as motivation or as distraction? Are there hard feelings on the other side of the ice that could potentially put a target on Plevy’s back? We’ll have to see if the Warriors have a message they want to convey to Plevy in his first game against them.
Massachusetts Minutemen 6-2-1 (2-1-1) Hockey East 4th
Vermont Catamounts 2-6-1 (1-2-1) Hockey East T-7th
On paper it looks like the Catamounts are having a pretty bad season with a 2-6-1 record. But on closer inspection, maybe Vermont isn’t quite as bad as they appear at first glance. Their 6 losses have come in the form of three weekend sweeps against very good opponents. In Mid-October they dropped two games at home to then #3 Omaha. The next weekend they hosted then #1 North Dakota and lost both. And last weekend they played #4 Lowell at home and lost both of those games. While the fans of Burlington have seen some of the best teams in the country this year at Gutterson, they haven’t seen any wins. The two Catamount wins have come on the road, first at then #8 Minnesota and at hapless Northeastern. The Cats will look for their first home win of the season this weekend, either Friday against UConn or Sunday versus Massachusetts.
Last year the Catamounts were one of the best defensive teams in the league, giving up the second least goals per game among Hockey East teams with 2.22. They returned junior Mike Santaguida who saved .923 of shots last year and was third in goals against average. Maybe it’s the level of competition he’s faced or maybe it’s something else but so far this season Santaguida has not been able to repeat last year’s performance. He comes into the weekend with a .907 save percentage, 41st in the country (just ahead of Nic Renyard). Vermont does boast an experienced defensive corps that includes the likes of Alexx Privitera, Rob Hamilton, and Yvan Pattyn.
Without a doubt Vermont’s biggest problem this season is that they’re just not scoring goals. The Catamounts are scoring just 2.00 goals per game, 10th worst among DI teams nationally. They do have some skilled offensive players to be aware of however. Junior Mario Puskarich is averaging a point per game with 4 goals and 5 assists in 9 games. The Privitera brothers both have six points apiece so far this season. UMass commit turned BU commit turned Vermont freshman Liam Coughlin has four assists on the season thus far.
This is a tough Vermont team to read. Their record is bad and their stats are skewed in the wrong direction. But they’ve played some really tough competition. Does this team have some fundamental flaws or have are they a product of who they’ve had to play? My guess is the answer is somewhere in between. Yes, the Catamounts have had an incredibly tough schedule having to play three top five teams across 6 games. Yet, all of those games against top ranked teams were at home. You would think a decent team would at least win one or two at home? But they haven’t. Is this a tough Vermont team? I’m not sure. But they’ll be hungry to prove themselves this weekend when they get a couple of unranked teams to the Gut.
Beer The Triangle
If you’re heading up to Burlington I highly recommend hitting a few places. Zero Gravity Brewing that’s part of American Flatbread is a great place to go for food an beer. Zero Gravity makes some really good german-style beers. Farmhouse Tap & Grille is pricey, but has a lot of good beers you can’t get elsewhere, including a selection of Hill Farmstead usually. And of course no trip is complete without stopping in Waterbury for a Heady Topper, preferably at the old Alchemist brewpub, now the Prohibition Pig. There’s no better road trip for beer in Hockey East.
The game in Burlington on Sunday has changed from a 1pm start time to a 2pm start time due to Catamount soccer’s participation in the America East tournament.
Weekend preview from UMass Athletics.
The Collegian advocates for bigger student crowds for hockey going forward.
Ahead of his first home game as a Bruin tonight, Masslive/The Republican has a whole host of stories on Western Mass native Frank Vatrano. There’s this piece on Vatrano’s undrafted status being a source of motivation. There’s a really interesting story of Vatrano’s callup and his father sitting at the Canadian border desperately trying to get across to watch his son’s debut in Montreal. And there’s this story on Vatrano’s connection with local institutions creating a big rooting interesting for East Longmeadow’s own.