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Weekend Preview: UMass Heads East To Take On Northeastern and BC

Northeastern Huskies 0-3-0 (0-1-0) Hockey East T-5th

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Massachusetts Minutemen 1-2-0 (0-1-0) Hockey East T-5th

The Massachusetts hockey team heads to Boston (and Newton) this weekend to take on a couple of Hockey East foes in Northeastern and Boston College.  After starting their three week, three state, six game road trip in Michigan last weekend, this week finds them in the more familiar hub before heading north to Maine next weekend.  This weekend presents an opportunity to get their first Hockey East points against two teams that are in somewhat uncomfortable situations.

Northeastern was one of the bigger surprises in all of college hockey last year.  The Huskies went from just 9 wins in 2012-13 to 19 last year, finishing tied for fourth in Hockey East and narrowly missing a tournament berth.  The team was second to BC in offense thanks to young and talented players like Kevin Roy (19 goals) and Mike Szmatula (15 goals).  Five of their top 7 goal scorers were sophomores or freshmen.  Probably a bigger surprise than their young firepower though was the play of their veteran goaltender, Clay Witt.  After playing just 16 games coming into his redshirt junior year Witt ended up putting up huge numbers last season, finishing second in the league with a .932 save percentage.  Between the youthful scorers and Clay Witt passing over pro offers to come back to St Botolph Street, big things were expected of the Huskies this season, picked fourth in the league by the coaches and even receiving a first place vote.

Fast forward to two weekends into the season and things probably couldn’t be any worse for Husky fans.  Their team comes into the weekend a very surprising 0-3-0.  It’s not just the losing record however, it’s how they’ve lost.  Opening night at Matthews Arena saw the home team lose to Vermont by a score of 6-2.  Unfortunately for the Huskies, they haven’t scored since as last weekend they travelled to upstate New York to play a very good Colgate team who shut out the Huskies 3-0 on consecutive nights.  That kind of early season performance puts Northeastern second to last in defense and dead last in offense among Hockey East teams.

An optimist may think UMass is fortunate to take on the Huskies when they’re playing so incredibly poorly.  But on the flip side this team has to embarrassed and hungry.  Coming home after getting dominated so thoroughly means they could be pretty dangerous.  This team is having a really, really tough time getting things together right now but they didn’t somehow become less talented.  Witt is still the same player who had four shutouts in the league last year and Roy, my personal pick for Player of the Year, is not going to be held goalless forever.  The Minutemen will have to be very careful around this wounded dog.

Boston College

#6 Boston College Eagles 1-1-0 (0-1-0) Hockey East T-5th

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Massachusetts Minutemen 1-2-0 (0-1-0) Hockey East T-5th

It’s not the same as the lopsided results that the Huskies have produced so far, but the Eagles losing to a rebuilding Lowell team 5-2 in the season opener raised a few eyebrows.  BC in that game produced just 21 shots on net.  Just 21.  For the usual high flying Eagle program which scored over 4 goals a game last season that statistic was a shocker.  They did follow it up with a 6-2 win last weekend in Rochester over RIT.  Still, that first result against Lowell has to make fans scratch their heads a bit.

It has been the young guys producing for the Eagles so far as 5 of the 7 goal scorers are underclassmen.  Sophomore Ryan Fitzgerald is the only multi-goal scorer, finding the net in each of their games.  BC has also gotten some good production from the blueline with four different defensemen scoring goals.  Junior defenseman Teddy Doherty leads the team with three points coming into this weekend on a goal and two assists.

While his offense didn’t get him much help against Lowell, sophomore goaltender Thatcher Demko didn’t do them any favors either, letting in four goals on 23 shots.  That’s a long ways from the .919 save percentage that landed him on the Hockey East All Rookie team last year.  He looked better last week making 25 saves on 27 RIT Tiger shots.  The Eagles will be taking on Colorado College in a non-conference game tomorrow night before the Minutemen take the B Line out to Conte Forum to meet them on Saturday.

To completely oversimplify things for UMass I think they just need to keep doing what they’re doing.  Meaning, last weekend we saw them build upon each previous game, improving with each outing.  They hung in tough with BU for two periods in the opener only to completely unravel in the third when faced with a two goal deficit.  In the first game in Lansing the adversity came early in the form of an early Michigan State lead and a key injury on defense.  But the team didn’t unravel, they continued to fight to the end, ultimately still losing.  Last Saturday the team played hard again and still looked like they were heading for an 0-3 start to the season.  But again they battled, tied the game with five minutes left, and then capitalized on an ill-timed Spartan penalty to get the dramatic victory.  They’re an inexperienced team and I think what we’re seeing is the players going through a situation, learning from it, and then knowing how to respond when faced with something similar.

There are still going to be challenges to overcome however.  The most obvious is depth on the blueline.  Ben Gallacher is still recovering from a nasty hit last weekend.  That leaves UMass with just six defensemen on the roster.  In his coach’s show this week Coach Micheletto said that Maddison Smiley was questionable.  Smiley is recovering from illness and may not have the stamina to go both nights yet.  That means a forward will have to step up (step back?) and play defense if Smiley can only dress one night.  Mick said Emerson Auvenshine has already been taking shifts at defense in practice and he has in mind some other options as well.  Auvenshine seems like a logical choice given his style of play but for a team that is giving up over five goals a game potential problems dressing defensemen should make UMass fans a little squeamish.

The Minutemen scored 7 goals against a solid Spartan defense anchored by one of the better goaltenders in the country.  That is reason for optimism.  Add to the fact that the majority of the offense came from underclassmen.  It’s only a couple games but last weekend UMass had two lines clicking with the Keith Burchett, Shane Walsh, Dominic Trento combination looking good on Friday and the Ray Pigozzi, Steven Iacobellis, and Patrick Lee line totaling three goals and 10 points on Saturday.  Now the Minutemen just need the top line of Frank Vatrano, Dennis Kravchenko, and Troy Power to make a strong showing.  If they don’t get it going on Friday, maybe facing the team the team he was once slated to play for would be enough motivation for Vatrano to breakout against BC.

While each game has seemed like some kind of learning experience for the team this season, these are still important games and unlike last weekend these count in the league standings.  Hockey East points in October are worth just as much as the ones in February and though all these road games may be unfair for a team still trying to get to know each other, the outcomes of these games could have long ranging consequences.  Though very different from each other, both these arenas can be difficult places to play, especially for the first time.  When you skate at Matthews you’re skating into a part of history, with a rowdy student section, and fans who are literally hanging over the ice from their storied balcony seats.  Conte doesn’t have the same character, but it’s a place where BC doesn’t lose very often and they have quite a few banners to prove it.  Last weekend this Minuteman team proved they can fight and win halfway across the country.  This weekend they can show they’re capable of doing the same against league opponents in-state.

Beer The Triangle
There’s a certain bar that I usually send fans to prior to Northeastern games (no, not Uno’s) that’s one of my favorites.  I may send you there in the future, but this time I’m just going to ask you to read this.  For before or after (I prefer after) the BC game regular readers already know where I’ll send you.  Here’s what you’ll currently find on draft at Publick House.  I haven’t had the Allagash Farm to Face, but it piques my interest.  Maybe we’ll get lucky and Port Older Viscosity will be on draft by Saturday.

I did a Q&A with BC Interruption ahead of Saturday’s game which supplements this preview.

The Collegian previews the weekend ahead as well as focuses in on the early success of the Pigozzi/Iacobellis/Lee line.

The Gazette has their weekend preview.

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