Minutemen To Close Out Regular Season Against UConn

Massachusetts Minutemen 10-20-2 (5-15-1)  Hockey East 12th

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UConn Huskies 9-17-7 (6-11-4)  Hockey East 10th

It’s hard to believe but the end of the regular season is upon us.  The Massachusetts Minutemen will try to close things out on a high note by continuing their better play as of late when they take on UConn in Hartford on Friday night.  UMass must win this game if they have any chance to improve their spot in the final Hockey East standings.  But even a with a win they’ll still need New Hampshire to sweep Merrimack in order to grab the 11th seed in the conference tournament.

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UMass Hosts Northeastern And #12 Lowell At Mullins Center This Weekend

Northeastern Huskies 11-11-4 (6-7-2) Hockey East T-7th

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Massachusetts Minutemen 8-17-1 (3-12-1) Hockey East 12th

Remember how the Northeastern Huskies started the season 0-8-1?  That was their record in mid-November.  Since then they’ve gone 11-3-3.  The Huskies have only one loss since early December and are 4-0-1 in their last five.  Though they upset #3 Minnesota in late November, the Huskies are coming off probably their biggest win of the season as they knocked off five time defending champion Boston College in the first round of the Beanpot this past Tuesday.

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UMass Looks To Upset #2 BU; McCutcheon Leaves UMass For UCSB

Massachusetts Minutemen 8-16-1 (3-11-1)  Hockey East T-11th

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#2 Boston University Terriers 15-4-4 (10-2-2)  Hockey East 1st

Almost four months ago Massachusetts and Boston University took to the ice in kind of similar spots.  Both were coming off disappointing seasons with relatively new coaches and featured large freshman classes that would be relied upon to produce early on.  And through two periods the teams looked pretty similar, with BU taking a narrow 2-1 lead into the third period.  But the Terriers exploded for six goals in the final period on the way to an 8-1 win and then the teams went their very separate ways for the next few month.  While the Minutemen were left embarrassed on opening night and would struggle mightily through the entire first half of the season, BU continued their strong play and come into the rematch the second ranked team in the country.

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Preview: #14 Merrimack Warriors On-Deck For Minutemen

#14 Merrimack Warriors 13-7-2 (4-5-1) Hockey East 9th

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Massachusetts Minutemen 7-16-0 (2-11-0) Hockey East 12th

The Massachusetts Minutemen will look to continue their improved play in a home and home series against the 14th ranked Merrimack Warriors this weekend.  UMass is 3-3-0 in their last six and will look for at least a split against one of the most pleasant surprises in the league this season.  Through out of conference success the Warriors are ranked in the top 15 and are in the hunt for an NCAA bid despite being picked to finish 1oth in the conference.

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Preview: UMass Still Searching For 2nd Hockey East Win In Home And Home With UNH

New Hampshire Wildcats 7-11-2 (2-5-1) Hockey East 10th

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Massachusetts Minutemen 6-15-0 (1-10-0) Hockey East 12th

Unfortunately for the Massachusetts hockey team they’re having to play the New Hampshire Wildcats at the worst possible time.  From the beginning of the season through early December UNH had just four wins.  It looked like they were going to go into winter break in a dreadful slump, going 0-5-1 from 11/15 through 12/12.  But just before everyone headed home for the Christmas holiday they beat rival Maine 7-4.  Starting with that win they’ve gone 3-1-1 in their last five and have posted impressive wins over #12 Nebraska-Omaha on the road and #14 Providence this past Tuesday.

The Wildcats are a very balanced team.  How balanced?  Well they’re average goals for and average goals against per game are both 2.70.  Their statistical ranking among Hockey East teams is pretty much in the middle of the pack across the board.  They’re ranked 6th offensively and 8th defensively.  Their power play is 6th best in the league while their penalty kill is 5th.  It would seem then that they’d be middle of the pack in terms of standings too, but instead they’re 10th, just three points ahead of the Minutemen (though with three games in hand).  The disconnect between their statistical ranking and place in the standings is because in addition to their two ties they’ve lost 7 games by one goal or one goal plus an empty net goal.  They spent most of the first half of the season being a shift or a bounce away from winning.  But it wasn’t until recently that they were able to get over that hump.

So what happened in that game against Maine before break and ever since?  Well for one, Grayson Downing happened.  The senior forward had four goals in the first 15 games.  He has 8 goals and 11 total points in the last five alone, including the game winners against both Omaha and Providence.  Needless to say he’s is absolutely on fire right now.  Sophomore Tyler Kelleher hasn’t been too bad in that time either.  In the last five games he has 2 goals and 5 assists.  Needless to say UMass will have to be extra careful when those two players are on the ice this weekend.

When Casey DeSmith ran into trouble with the law during the offseason coach Dick Umile turned to freshman Adam Clark to take care of the crease and overall the big netminder has done pretty well on the season.  His 5-11-2 record is more a product of all those one goal losses as statistically his .905 save percentage and 2.68 goals against average aren’t too bad.  It’s unclear if UMass will see him for one, two, or no games this weekend though.  Joining the Wildcats for the second semester was Daniel Tirone and in two games he’s been spectacular, picking up the wins against both the Omaha and Providence.  In those two games he has a .947 save percentage and 1.50 goals against average.  In front of either goaltender UNH has a very solid defenseman in Carolina draft pick junior Brett Pesce.

A few weeks ago consecutive weeks against Maine and UNH looked like a big opportunity for UMass to rack up some wins against the other poor performing teams in Hockey East.  However, this looks like a Wildcat team that is starting to find itself and is probably not going to be the easier competition that the team had hoped for.  Both offensively and defensively UNH is playing very good right now.  UMass on the other hand continues to be inconsistent.  This past weekend against Maine featured some of the best goaltending and defensive play we’ve seen in consecutive games all season.  But their offense sputtered, scoring just three goals in two games against a defensively poor Black Bear team.  Earlier in the season UMass was having no problem scoring, but were giving up 5, 6, 7 goals a game.  They have to bring both parts of the game together.

Down the stretch it’s going to be important for the coaching staff to get the freshmen involved in the scoring again.  In the first part of the season, cumulating with the AIC win, the freshmen were scoring 1.4 goals per game for the Minutemen.  Since that time they’ve only scored 0.5 goals per game.  They’re still generating roughly the same amount of shots in those time periods (10.8 vs 9.5), they’re just not finding the back of the net.

Coach Micheletto has said on the radio show and in postgame interviews that he’s very happy with the progress he’s seen since the team came out of the holiday break.  And they have at times looked a lot better in that period, though they’re still just 2-3-0 in the five games in question.  It’s also important to realize that in that times they’ve played one very good team (Providence), one average team (UConn), and two bad teams (Air Force, Maine).  Coming out flat against Maine on Saturday after the uplifting, come from behind win on Friday was worrisome.  However, if the Minutemen can get two, perhaps three Hockey East points from an improving UNH team then I think fans can buy into the idea that the team is finally starting to show progress versus their first half woes.

Beer The Triangle
Still trying to find that Berkshire Imperial Steel Rail!

Weekend Preview From UMass Athletics.

Weekend Preview From UNH.

The Collegian has their preview for the UNH series.

For a UNH viewpoint, here’s a preview from the Foster’s Daily Democrat.

SBN College Hockey has a great feature on Frank Vatrano, chronicling his journey to finally playing college hockey every night.

Preview: Maine Visits Amherst For Two Non-Conference Matches

Maine Black Bears 6-13-1 (2-6-0) Hockey East 10th

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Massachusetts Minutemen 5-14-0 (1-10-0) Hockey East 12th

The Maine Black Bears and Massachusetts Minutemen have already played the games that counted in the Hockey East standings earlier in the year, with the Maine taking all four points.  But Red Gendron and the Black Bears will be coming south to Amherst to take on the Minutemen this weekend in a couple of non-conference affairs at the Mullins Center.  Just because there aren’t any league points at stake, doesn’t make these games meaningless.  Maine will want to continue the momentum they’ve built in winning 3 of their last 4.  The Minutemen meanwhile need to figure out a way to start winning some games, especially at home where they’ve won just once all season.

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Preview: UMass Hosts UConn In First League Match of 2015

Connecticut Huskies 4-9-4 (2-4-1) Hockey East 9th

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Massachusetts Minutemen 5-13-0 (1-9-0) Hockey East 12th

Massachusetts will face UConn for the first time as a Hockey East foe on Friday night as the Minutemen continue to look for their second league win of the season.  At the beginning of the season this game probably looked like a good chance of a win since the Huskies were not expected to compete in their new league right away.  But that hasn’t been the case.  UConn has had some key wins and ties in the league and find themselves not only ahead of the Minutemen in the standings, but Maine and New Hampshire too.

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Preview: UMass Heads North To Face Providence, Air Force In The Catamount Cup

#16 Providence Friars 9-6-1 (6-4-0) Hockey East 4th

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Massachusetts Minutemen 4-12-0 (1-9-0) Hockey East 12th

This year’s edition of the Catamount Cup in Burlington will feature three Hockey East teams with host Vermont, Massachusetts, and Providence, as well as Air Force from Atlantic Hockey.  The Minutemen and Friars will kick the tournament off Sunday at 4pm in a non-conference game between the two league foes.  It’ll be UMass’ first shot at the Friars before they meet again in February, that time with Hockey East points on the line.

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Preview: Montour To Debut As Minutemen Take On Northeastern In Non-Conference Clash

Northeastern Huskies 4-10-1 (3-6-1) Hockey East 8th

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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

Dear Santa,

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.

Preview: Notre Dame Visits Amherst For Final Hockey East Games of 2014

Notre Dame Fighting Irish 6-8-2 (2-2-2) Hockey East T-6th

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Massachusetts Minutemen 4-9-0 (1-7-0) Hockey East T-11th

The first part of the year probably hasn’t gone exactly how the Massachusetts hockey team and their fans would have wanted, gaining just one conference win through 8 games so far.  Though UMass will play Northeastern mid-month, that game against the Huskies will technically be a non-conference match.  That means this weekend’s visit by Notre Dame is the last chance to grab some Hockey East points before the holiday break.  The season to date has had its challenges, but there are a lot of factors that the Minutemen should find in their favor this weekend and it ends up being a significant opportunity to try to climb out of the Hockey East cellar.

First and foremost in UMass’ favor is that this Irish team is struggling mightily lately.  After dropping two games in the Icebreaker tournament to start the season the Domers seemed to get on track by pulling off five straight wins in October.  Once the calendar turned to November though things have gotten pretty bad for the Irish.  They come into the Mullins with a 1-6-1 record in their last eight.  They just finished in last place of their own Shillelagh Tournament last weekend.  In those eight games they’ve been outscored 3.50 goals to 1.50.  They’ve converted just one power play in their last 27 attempts for a 3.7% rate.  Their opponents meanwhile have converted 19.4% of their power plays in that time.  The team that UMass faces this weekend is flat out reeling.

Junior Mario Lucia is the leading goal scorer among all Hockey East forwards with 9 total.  However he’s a big reason why the Irish have struggled, scoring just once in the last eight games.  Junior Sam Herr has been their best scorer of late, netting 3 of his 6 total goals during recent games.  When looking at the season as a whole, not just the last 8 when they’ve struggled, Notre Dame has some similar numbers as UMass.  The Irish have scored 2.62 goals per game versus 2.69 for the Minutemen.  They’re generating 28.2 shots per game while the Minutemen have been averaging 26.5.  The power play is one key spot where the teams differ on offense.  While UMass has a relatively average power play at 13.5%, the 6.6% conversion rate for the Irish is second to last in the country.

Notre Dame has used two goaltenders regularly this season; sophomore Chad Katunar and freshman Cal Petersen, a 5th round draft pick by the Buffalo Sabres.  On the season they both have identical 3-5-1 records and relatively close save percentages; .916 for Katunar and .906 for Petersen.  However in this recent slide the Irish have found that Katunar has been the better goaltender with a .928 save percentage and 2.29 GAA versus .838 and 5.11 respectively for Petersen.  In front of those two UMass will have to keep an eye on blueline senior Robbie Russo, a solid two way defenseman drafted by the Islanders who is second on the team in points with 12 (5G, 7A).

The Minutemen have had a lot of different challenges which have seemed to hindered their ability to win this season.  Early on it was the amount of freshman on the roster and their inexperience that led to some inconsistent play and slow starts.  Then we had the annoying three state, three weekend road trip that some cited as resulting in fatigue that kept the team from gaining any points in Orono.  Then there was having to play five games in nine days which slowed them down in November.  But the reasons for UMass’ losing should be coming to an end.  The freshman should be well acclimated after two months in Hockey East and are already contributing regularly to the team’s fortunes.  The team will get to play at the Mullins Center two nights in a row with the only recent trip being a short drive down to Connecticut for the game against Quinnipiac last Friday, so road weariness isn’t a factor.  UMass’ defense and goaltending, which has been a liability off and on during the season, is coming off of two solid efforts in a row against a pretty good offensive team in the Bobcats.

When you consider all the above and add in a team that has struggled mightily and has won just one game on the road (a road that will require a plane flight for this weekend) and UMass has a lot of reason to be optimistic this weekend.  There’s a lot in their favor to think this can be a successful weekend for the Minutemen. Is three points an unreasonable expectation?  I don’t think so.  To do so we’ll have to see a lot of the same good things carry over from last weekend.  We saw a defense (defensemen and forwards)that suddenly was blocking shots left and right with Oleg Yevenko, Mike Busillo, and Steven Iacobellis all having season highs in that metric.  Henry Dill looked very solid in net, posting a .928 save percentage in the two games, and doing a great job of limiting second chance opportunities for the opponents.  On Friday we saw an offensive that was aggressive and attacking, forcing and capitalizing upon Quinnipiac miscues, and turning them into quality chances and goals.  We didn’t see that style nearly as much on Saturday unfortunately.  That attacking style has to be able to transfer over to the big home ice.  One consistent bright spot is that when this team gets on a rush, they’ve seemed to find the back of the net at a better rate than other recent UMass teams.  It’s imperative that the team continues to maintain puck possession while forcing turnovers on the other end to create those high probablility shots.  If they do so for both nights the team may find the Hockey East standings look noticeably different come Sunday.

Beer The Triangle
I’m overdue a trip to ABC.  A look at their beerlist shows they have a whole series of “Flack Briday” Russian Imperial Stouts on, including Barrel-aged, Vanilla, and Coffee & Bacon variations.  Yeah, that sounds pretty good.

Weekend Preview from UMass Athletics.  One interesting note is that Notre Dame last played in the Mullins Center on New Year’s Eve in 1994.  That game was the first win over a DI opponent for the triangle-clad Minutemen program that had been resurrected the year before.

Preview from Notre Dame Fighting Irish Athletics.

The Collegian has their preview of this weekend’s action as well as a feature on Frank Vatrano’s emergence as an offensive threat.

Weekend preview from the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Mike McMahon has his most recent Hockey East Stat Pack on The Mack Report.

With high school hockey about to start up in the commonwealth UMass commit and Springfield Cathedral player John Leonard is one of SBN College Hockey’s Preseason MIAA All-State Team members.

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