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Game Preview: Minutemen Look For Payback Against AIC

American International Yellow Jackets 2-4-1 (2-3-1) Atlantic Hockey T-4th

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Massachusetts Minutemen 2-5-0 (1-4-0) Hockey East T-6th

I had a conversation this week with a long time supporter of Massachusetts hockey regarding the worst losses in the program’s history.  I don’t mean worst by margin or the most heart-wrenching (damn you Jimmy Howard), I mean games that the team had no business losing.  The ones that got bounced around were the overtime loss to UConn in October of 2004, the first win by an Atlantic Hockey team over a Hockey East team.  The year after that UMass dropped a 3-2 decision at home to Holy Cross which ranks up there in worst losses.  Another cited was the 5-2 stinker against Alabama-Huntsville at the Mariucci Classic at the end of 2006.  The first two were pretty bad, coming shortly after it looked like UMass was starting to establish itself as a legitimate program.  The loss to the Chargers ended up being a fluke, and perhaps a motivator, in a season that ultimate saw the Minutemen make their lone NCAA appearance.  There is no doubt however that the case can be made that last year’s loss to the AIC was the worst of the worst.  The Yellow Jackets had never beaten a Hockey East school previously and has rarely had double digits in wins during its existence.  Add in the proximity to the higher profile UMass program and losing to AIC was inexcusable.  But it happened.  And Friday the UMass players need to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The 3-2 loss to the Yellow Jackets featured some things you typically don’t see.  First and foremost then freshman goaltender Hunter Leisner made 57 saves on the night.  57!  In the second period he saved 26 of 26 shots.  On the other end of the ice that period Steve Mastalerz faced only two shots.  And both got by him for AIC goals.  The box score is crazy to read.  I’d go on about some of the other statistical oddities but at the end of the day the AIC team did what they had to do and Leisner stole one from their neighboring power conference school.

So, that leads to the question of will Leisner be able to come into the Mullins and steal another one?  Well, it’s unknown if the Minutemen will even get a chance to get a second crack at him.  Leisner has played in three games this season and is 0-3-0 with a .890 save percentage and 4.37 goals against average.  Instead it’s been freshman Alex Murray who has been AIC’s go to goaltender.  Murray, who played last season in the BCHL, is 2-0-1 with save percentage of .954 that is sixth best in the country.  Murray backstopped the Jackets to a sweep at Niagara last weekend where AIC outscored the Purple Eagles 7-3.  It’s hard to decide if UMass would have an advantage over either one of these goaltenders.

Offensively AIC is led by senior forward Alexander MacMillan, who scored the game winner against the Minutemen last year.  MacMillan, the AHA Player of the Week last week, has 5 of the team’s 17 goals on the year with all of them coming at even strength.  Currently 25% of his shots are finding the back of the net.  Sophomore Austin Orszulak and junior David Gandara are the only other players to have multiple goals so far with three and two respectively.

For the Minutemen the strategy should be to score early and score often.  What happens in games against lesser opponents is if they’re allowed to hang around, come up with some big saves, and keep the game scoreless or close then they get some confidence and suddenly you have a dogfight on your hands.  UMass has to put AIC away early.  Perhaps they can take a page from the basketball team which just put 120 up on their AIC counterparts last week.  The good news is the UMass offense isn’t looking too bad right now.  While last weekend was frustrating they did score seven goals in the two games against the Black Bears with four of them coming from key players who had been held scoreless on the season; Frank Vatrano and Dennis Kravchenko.  They need to continue to make progress on offensive, especially five on five, and this AIC game presents a good opportunity to do so.  UMass has had a number of highlight reel goals so far on the season and that’s what they’ll need Friday.  Slap shots from the point or soft wristers from the top of the circle won’t cut it. Those are the shots that didn’t work against this team last year. Whomever is in net for AIC will need to be challenged and UMass will have to do so with passing, puck movement, and getting the goaltender moving within the crease.

A consistent effort and performance from the entire team is key as well.  So far in this young season UMass has had a tough time putting an good offensive and a good defensive game together on the same night.  A good night of goaltending and defense have seemed to coincide with a drought in scoring while high scoring nights have ended up being shootouts.  Defense and goaltending seemed like it was trending better during the weekend in Boston but took a step back up in Orono.  They’ll need to get that back on track before Hockey East play starts up again in two weeks.  At this point it’s unknown who will be in net for the Minutemen but whoever it is will look to make the case that they should be in net against Boston College later in the month.

The three week, three state, four opponent road trip is over.  The Minutemen finally return to the Mullins Center for the first time since the opening night disappointment against Boston University.  The team did have some success on their trek around the eastern half of the country and at the very least probably got some quality bonding time in during the plane and bus rides.  It will be great to get them back on home ice and in front of their own fans.  Hopefully the upperclassmen are stressing to the younger players that they’re not only defending the Mullins ice tomorrow, but they’re out to reclaim Western Mass hockey dominance.  Even though the gap in talent between the leagues is closing and Atlantic Hockey teams are beating upper conference teams with more regularity, another loss to AIC simply cannot happen.  Not to a program that claims to be in the middle of a turnaround.  Pride and skill.  Those are the two factors that should come into play tomorrow.  And if the Minutemen make the most of those two factors then they should be celebrating their first home win by the end of the night.

Beer The Triangle
This is a special BTT bulletin.  If you see any Bear Republic beer I strongly suggest to buy it, store it, drink it, and/or savor it.  The Northern California brewery is pulling out of Massachusetts due to the effects of the drought out west.  I would be crying in my Café Racer 15 right now if I wasn’t now actively hoarding it.  The Hangar is one of the few places in the state where you can actually find Racer 15 during those rare times it’s available.  So, even though I have no idea if they have any Bear Republic on, I suggest going there and commiserating with other Bear Republic fans like myself over our loss.

And one last thing, I try to keep politics off this hockey/beer/hockeybeer blog but can we get a handle on this whole climate change thing because it’s now affecting my beer drinking and that make me angry.  Sure flooding and less Polar Bears are bad, but I want my Racer 5 and Red Rocket damnit!

The Collegian has their preview of Friday’s matchup with AIC as well as a piece on the connections between the programs.

Coach Micheletto says he hopes UMass-AIC becomes a rivalry in the Gazette preview.  I’m not sure what it would take to be a true “rivalry” but as I wrote yesterday I do think this is a great game for the region and hope to see it continue regularly.

The latest edition of Troy Power’s blog covers the Maine series and how good it is to return to the Mullins for the AIC game.

This goal by Dennis Kravchenko was the UMass Play of the Week.

Here’s an update on UMass alumni in the pros from the hockey office.

Mike McMahon crunches the numbers again for the Hockey East teams with his stats post.  Needless to say UMass has to improve their play at even strength and do better to gain the shot advantage.

College Hockey News has a good opinion piece on the overly punitive sanctions handed down to Alaska-Fairbanks.

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