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Maine Preview

#14 Maine Black Bears 16-10-6 (13-8-4) Hockey East 5th

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Massachusetts Minutemen 6-20-5 (5-15-5) Hockey East 8th

Wait a second.  Last weekend of the regular season?  How the hell did that happen?  Seems like it wasn’t that long ago I was sitting with my Section U crew watching so many of these Minutemen make their college debuts on TV against Minnesota.  But sure enough, here we are.  The last weekend of hockey in the Mullins Center this season.  And for the Minutemen, the stakes are high.

Luckily for UMass, they’re playing Maine.  Now that’s not meant to be a slight to the Black Bears, a team in the top 15 with one of the best players in the league in Gustav Nyquist.  But when UMass has done something historic or needed some wins, it always seems to come at the expense of Maine.  Of course probably the biggest win ever in the 90’s was UMass upsetting top ranked Maine in 1995.  The program’s first trip to the Hockey East semifinals in 2003 came thanks to a playoff sweep of Maine in the quarterfinals.  UMass made their only trip to the NCAAs by beating Maine four times in eight days in March of 2007.  And of course last year at this time UMass looked bound to finish out of the playoffs until they were able to go north and sweep the 17th ranked Black Bears at home in the last weekend of the season.  Things do not look as dire but the team could make it a lot easier on themselves, you, me, and all the other UMass fans out there if they just go out and win this weekend’s games.  And if they can play as they have the last two weekends, they are more than capable of taking a game or two at home.

To do that however, they’ll have to figure out a way to shutdown Nyquist, the reigning Hockey East Player of the Month for February where he scored 10 goals and had four assists.  Unfortunately, he’s not the only guy UMass has to look out for.  Junior Brian Flynn has 18 goals on the year while fellow junior Spencer Abbott has 15.  Flynn has been especially clutch with four gamewinners on the season.  Maine has a decent power play at 18.8% so that’s something that the suddenly struggling Minuteman penalty kill will have to figure out as well.

A few weeks ago the defensive story for Maine would’ve been about their deep defensive corps with guys like Will O’Neil or Jeff Dimmen.  Instead it’s all about freshman goaltender Dan Sullivan who has suddenly become the next Jimmy Howard.  In fact he’s been better than Howard, recently breaking the former UMass nemesis’ shutout streak. He went 202 minutes without allowing a goal, with a lot of that time coming against a top 5 Merrimack team (sorry, that still feels weird to type).  In Sullivan’s last four games he has allowed just one goal.  One.  Obviously challenging him, getting pucks on him, and getting him out of his comfort zone will be key for the Minutemen.  They absolutely have to jump on him early in Friday’s game and get him out of sync.

I’m sorry to report that UMass will be without one of their best freshmen as Joel Hanley will be joining Mike Lecomte in the stands for the balance of the season.  Yes, for the second year in a row the team has lost a key defenseman to mono, “the kissing disease”.  If only UMass had a BYU-like honor code where players weren’t allowed to be anywhere near coeds and thus the spread of germs would be lessened  (But then again, that would mean no Opa Opa in between periods in the Massachusetts Room, so scratch that).  Obviously that’s a significant loss for the team, especially since Hanley has been playing so well lately.  However with Anthony Raiola playing solid on Saturday Toot has options to fill Hanley’s spot and can choose between him or Darren Rowe.

If UMass is going to take advantage of playing at home in the final weekend of the season they’ll have to play a complete game on both sides of the puck.  Since giving up those 11 goals to Merrimack UMass has down pretty well in keeping goals off the board, relatively.  Teams have put up 3 goals a game against them in that time which is pretty good since they’ve been facing teams like Merrimack and Boston College.  The problem has been trying to score 3 or more goals themselves.  They’ve only scored 2.3 goals in that same time.  They’ve averaged 27 shots on net during that time, which is above their season average.  But they have to work on getting quality shots.  Too many have been from the perimeter with no one there to put in a rebound.  They have to learn to skate to the net and challenge the goaltender.  They can do that by put home skill wristers or garbage goals where they fourth hack puts it past the line.  But either way they have to attack the net.  It would also be nice if the team could continue their improvement on the power play.  After scoring just one power play goal in the span of 8 games, they Minutemen have scored 4 in their last 4.

Last week in previewing the series against Boston College I felt it was important for the team to play well because I was thinking ahead to this weekend.  While taking games from BC was a tall order, I was hoping for the team to just play well and prove they could compete so they could gain some confidence and momentum coming into this important weekend at home against Maine.  Well, I’m looking ahead again.  If UMass wants to do some damage and maybe shock a few people around Hockey East with their play in the playoffs, they have to first get there.  That means not only playing well enough to be in the game with a team like Maine, but to beat them.  All year long these younger players have looked up to the senior class for support and guidance.  Well hopefully they realize that it’s the last time those seniors will take the Mullins Center ice as UMass hockey players.  It’s time for the underclassmen to do something for the seniors and  send them on their way to the playoffs and out of UMass as winners.

Remember, triangles people.  Triangles!

I have great readers.  I’ve talked recently about being unable to get stats for new recruit Steve Mastalerz and two different people have contacted me with his numbers.  So here we go.  His goals against for the season was 1.81, best of all prep goaltenders.  His save percentage was .931, 4th in the league.  His record was 24-6-4 in the regular season.  He was named to USHR’s Prep All-Star team.  Unfortunately his season is over as he and his Kimball Union Wildcats lost last night in the first round of the prep playoffs 2-3 in overtime.

Another random piece of news, I learned that Steve Guzzo who messed up his knee on the eve of the season opener in Minnesota, has recently started skating again.

USCHO selects Mike Pereira to their Hockey East All-Rookie team as well as a runner-up for Rookie of the Year.

Maine is trying to get a jump on playing on the big ice. Interestingly Maine goaltender Shawn Sirman is sick which probably clinches the fact that UMass will see Sullivan both nights.

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