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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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