Massachusetts hockey fans should be pretty content with this three weekend, three state, road trip so far. The inexperienced team went out to the Midwest and split with a defensively strong Michigan State team in the first leg of the trip. Last weekend on a jaunt out to Boston the team got some unexpected heroics from Emerson Auvenshine and Henry Dill to defeat the Northeastern Huskies and then the next night were a bit overwhelmed by #6 Boston College, but still played respectably. This weekend’s series against Maine up in Orono will really define whether this road trip, the team’s longest of the season, will ultimately be considered a success or a disappointment. Though it’s still early in the season a sweep at the hands of the Black Bears could have serious repercussions. UMass already already played more conference games than anyone else and Maine is one of those teams picked to finish in the middle of the Hockey East standings that the Minutemen will have to beat if they want to do better than their 11th place predictions.
Maine has had an odd schedule so far to say the least. It’s not often that that the Black Bears travel north on a road trip, but they did just that when they started the season in Anchorage, getting swept by the Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks in the Kendall Hockey Classic. They returned home the next weekend but had to host defending national champions Union and promptly got swept again. Last weekend they were able to get some swift revenge as the UAA Seawolves visited Orono and Maine got a win and tie against the Alaskans this time around. Still the 1-4-1 start on the season has a lot of Black Bear faithful unhappy. It’s likely that coach Red Gendron is feeling the same.
Coming into the season it was expected that Maine would be strong offensively but potentially struggle on defense and in net. That hasn’t been the way it’s played out early on however. Maine is scoring just 1.83 goals per game so far, 10th best among Hockey East teams. The team’s shortfall in scoring is very obvious as defenseman Ben Hutton and winger Devin Shore, All-Americans last year, have not come through so far. Last season the duo combined for 29 goals and 72 points. Through six games this year they’ve combined for just two goals and an assist despite being 1st and 2nd on the team in shots on goal, and are a combined –7. The stars so far for Maine have ended up being sophomores Cam Brown (3G, 3A) and Blaine Byron (2G, 2A).
Gendron has used a combination of goalies so far on the season, but sophomore Matt Morris has been the clearly better goaltender so far. Morris has started four games to freshman Sean Romeo’s two and so has had a respectable .918 save percentage in those outings. Morris started both of the games last weekend against UAA and will likely get the starts again this weekend.
In terms of the situation in net for the Minutemen, I would expect to see freshman Henry Dill in net again for at least the Friday game. The reigning Rookie of the Week played well enough in both games to keep his team in the game and I don’t think Micheletto would make a change at this point. Still, if he’s unable to handle the hostile Alfond environment on Friday and plays poorly then Steve Mastalerz will be ready to go on Saturday. In front of the goaltenders I think we’ll same the same sort of setup as last week. While defensemen Maddison Smiley and Ben Gallacher did make the trip to Orono their playing status is still unknown as they both try to return from injuries. So it’s probably likely we’ll see the same five defenseman with the addition of Emerson Auvenshine on the blueline on Friday. Considering the question marks surrounding this defensive unit coming into the season and then the injury issues that have complicated the situation, I thought the unit played very well last weekend. On Friday they gave Dill the support he needed to limit the Huskies to two goals and then against an always talented BC team the team only allowed one even strength goal. Maine is a lot like Northeastern in that they have some skilled but underachieving and therefore hungry players on offense. Just as UMass kept hungry, overdue Huskies like Kevin Roy, Zach Aston-Reese, and Mike Szmatula off the board on Friday, they’ll have to do the same for Shore and Hutton this weekend.
Offensively UMass has looked pretty good. Their 2.40 goals per game is above the 2.23 they had last season. While the 15% power play percentage is nothing to write home about, it is fourth best among Hockey East teams. And beyond the stats is that UMass has gotten timely goals, namely the Patrick Lee gamewinner in Lansing with 9 ticks left and Auvenshine’s key third period goal last week. What’s amazing is they’ve been able to generate this much offense despite getting practically nothing from their top line of Frank Vatrano, Dennis Kravchenko, and Troy Power. Those three have combined for just three points and zero goals. It’s still relatively early in the season but the drought for those players is getting to the point where it’s very concerning. Typically I would expect a coach to switch up some players to get them going, but when the second and third lines are clicking as they are do you dare change lines? Probably not. One thing is for certain is if UMass is going to have some sustained success, they absolutely have to have the first line scoring. Hopefully that starts this weekend because the other guys can only carry the load for so long.
Huge four points on the line this weekend. Huge. You’re facing a Maine team that’s struggling which is definitely the best time to visit Alfond Arena, a place that’s not very friendly to opposing teams. It’s good that the freshmen have gotten to experience a few different road environments before heading to Orono and hopefully they can use those learnings to their advantage. Though the Black Bears are on the schedule for another two games later on in the season, these are the ones to win because these are the ones that will count in the Hockey East standings. A couple wins this weekend could help solidify an early season foothold towards the top of those standings for the Minutemen.
Beer The Triangle
It’s been a few years since I’ve been up to Orono but the best beer spot I found in my trips there was Nocturnem Draft Haus. They currently have Maine Beer Company Lunch on draft. I suggest you have at least two of those because it’s near impossible to find on draft and is considered one of the better IPAs out there. And then after that have an Ommegang Valar Morghulis while contemplating the fact that all men must die.
There will be a couple familiar names across the ice for Maine this weekend. Former Minuteman Andrew Tegeler is playing for the Black Bears after transferring from UMass a couple years ago. On defense for Maine is Mark Hamilton who was a highly regarded recruit for the Minutemen at one time.
Hamilton is the subject of this story out of the Bangor Daily news.
Captain Troy Power covers last weekend in his latest blog entry.
Mick McMahon is doing a great job digging into the statistics among Hockey East teams. I think it shows that UMass must improve their play at even strength, which isn’t a surprise since they struggled five on five last year as well.