Recap: UMass Takes Three Points From #14 Merrimack; Kravchenko Wins Rookie of the Week

When the Massachusetts Minutemen returned from winter break with a 4-1 loss to Providence it dropped their record to 4-13-0.  Just four wins in 17 games.  The next night they won against Air Force and they’ve done pretty well ever since.  With this weekend’s tie and win against 14th ranked Merrimack UMass has now picked up as many wins in their last eight games as their did over their first 17, going 4-3-1 in that time.  Splits with New Hampshire and Maine in the past couple weeks showed that the team could hang with some of the other teams at the bottom of the Hockey East standings.  But to take three points from ranked Merrimack who was coming off a weekend where they were College Hockey News’ Team of the Week shows that things may be turning around for this UMass team.

Friday was one of those weird games where you don’t know if you’re disappointed that your team didn’t get the win or if you should be thankful that you got at least one point.  I can’t comment too much on the game since I only listened to the radio broadcast, but it was a pretty crazy one.  UMass came out strong in the first and had the lead after one thanks to Brennan Baxandall’s first collegiate goal.  The second period was all Merrimack however.  After UMass had the shot edge 12-7 in the first the Warriors poured 20 shots on Henry Dill in the second.  Three of those shots got by Dill and things were not looking good for the Minutemen down 3-1 going into the third against a tough defensive team.

But Frank Vatrano started the comeback early in the period with a power play goal, which he persistently hacked away at in front of Warrior goaltender Rasumus Tirronen until it finally went in.  The next goal was really the key to the game.  Shorthanded, the Minutemen got the puck and drove toward the UMass zone.  Merrimack did not really attack the puckhandlers so they took advantage to press the opportunity.  Dennis Kravchenko brought the puck over the blue line and passed across the ice high in the zone to Steven Iacobellis.  Iacobellis then found a streaking Brandon Montour cutting through the Merrimack defense and just like that the game is tied at 3 apiece.  UMass would give up the lead just six seconds later when Merrimack skated in after winning the faceoff following the UMass goal.  But as we’ve seen a lot lately Shane Walsh would play the role of hero, tying up the game with a power play goal later in the period to secure a tie and important Hockey East point for the Minutemen.  UMass has not won at pesky Lawler Arena since 2007 so to get a tie after being down 3-1 going into the final period is a big plus for this squad.

Fear The Triangle Player of the Game (Friday) – Brandon Montour
In addition to the shorthanded goal that tied the game in the third, Montour also assisted on the Vatrano goal earlier in the period and had three blocks on the night.

Friday’s highlights:

The back half of the Friday-Saturday home and home turned into a Sunday match after the original date got postponed due to snowy(?) conditions in Amherst.  The unfortunate result of the postponement was that the team had to play in front of a really tiny crowd (announced crowd was 1224, it was actually much less) and had to generate their own energy.  The good news is they did just fine in doing so.

Sunday afternoon’s affair ended up being a showcase of Kimball Union Academy hockey as two former teammates for the Wildcats were the stars for the game.  Steve Mastalerz did an excellent job in net, stopping a career high 44 saves and finally getting his first win of the season.  KUA offensive star Dennis Kravchenko had two goals in the 4-1 win to cap off a strong weekend for him.  I would imagine no one in the arena was more happy to see those two lead the Minutemen to a win than their former KUA coach Ryan Miller, now an assistant coach on John Micheletto’s staff.

I saw some label this game ugly, and sloppy but honestly I found it pretty entertaining and, selfishly, worth the unplanned drive out to Amherst. It wasn’t the prettiest of games, due in part to the teams’ overall styles and also not helped by some inconsistent officiating, but it didn’t lack for excitement.  The teams combined for 95 shots on goal.  There was a penalty shot where Zack LaRue was denied by Warrior netminder Brian Delia.  There were a combined 12 power play opportunities resulting in 33 shots on goal.  And fans got to see a shorthanded empty net goal scored from 160 feet away.  In the end, it was fun.

For the first two periods it was all about the goaltending of Mastalerz and Delia and how well the guys in front of them played defense.  Through two periods the shots were 31-27 for UMass, numbers you’d typically see for a full game.  It ended being UMass who got on board first when Kravchenko would score a power play goal with just 10 seconds remaining in the second stanza.  Kravchenko would strike again at the very beginning of the third to give UMass a two goal lead.  The Warriors would do everything they could to get back in the game, accumulating 18 shots to UMass’ 9 in the final period, but Mastalerz would have none of it.  Late in the game Merrimack would get a power play chance and would pull their goaltender only to have freshman Dominic Trento, able to shoot away since his team was shorthanded,  ice the game with a goal scored from the face off dots in his own zone.  Unfortunately Merrimack would keep their goalie pulled and ruin the shutout chance for Mastalerz with an extra man goal.  Patrick Lee would add another empty net goal on an unselfish setup from Stephen Guzzo to seal the 4-1 win and three point weekend for UMass.

This was a pretty impressive weekend for the Minutemen.  I mentioned a few weeks ago that if UMass was going to turn around their fortunes they’d need more output from their freshmen.  Well they got goals from Montour, Trento, Lee, and two from Kravchenko.  They got those in addition to key goals from the upperclassmen like Vatrano and Walsh.  They got a solid performance in net on Friday from Dill in a tough place to play and got Mastalerz’s best performance of the season on Sunday.  He’s had some solid outings during the year and still ended up with the win, so it was good to see him rewarded for his hard work and a lot of hard hits he took in his outing against Merrimack.  But I think what’s good from this weekend, especially when looking at the Sunday game, is how good the team defense was.  Dill and Mastalerz are giving them exactly what they need.  But the rest of the team is stepping up.

I think it’d be easy to see how much progress has been made recently, to look at the 4-3-1 record in the last 8, and chalk it up to Montour joining the team.  And don’t get me wrong, he’s been great offensively but has also surprised with how well he plays defense too.  But I think that would overlook a marked improvement by the team defensively.  Through that game against Providence to kick off the second half of the season UMass was giving up 4.65 goals per game.  In the 8 games since they’re only giving up 3 goals per game.  The goaltenders deserve praise, but the guys in front of them went from blocking 12.5 shots per game to 19.5.  I would say that the focus on shot blocking is very noticeable in the recent games.  It seems obvious that the team, from staff to players, that have made more of a concerted effort to be better defensively.  But, they’re still trying to be aggressive on offense as well, as shown by their 82 shots on goal this weekend.  I think no stat showcases the weekend better than the fact that the UMass penalty kill was 11 for 12 on the weekend.  Granted, UMass gives up a lot of opportunities, but to keep Merrimack off the board with the extra man so much was impressive, especially considering the Warriors had a key 5 on 3 chance late during the Sunday game that went for naught.  What shouldn’t be lost in that PK stat is that the Minutemen scored 2 shorthanded goals in those opportunities as well.  That’s right, UMass had two goals with Merrimack on the power play to the Warriors’ one.  It’s out of the ordinary stats like that, I would argue born from effort rather than luck, that can result in a successful weekend.  That’s what happened this past weekend.

Fear The Triangle Player of the Game (Sunday) – Dennis Kravchenko
Honestly, given their individual performances, both Mastalerz and Kravchenko are worthy of POTG.  Why Kravchenko gets the nod is because his goals were key not only for the fact that he scored them, but when he scored them.  A team never wants to give up a goal late in the period or early in the period.  Kravchenko’s goal came in both of those key time periods and in a matter of only seconds on the game clock was able to take Merrimack out of the game.

Highlights, Recap, and Box Score from Friday from UMass Athletics.

Highlights, Recap and Box Score from Sunday from UMass Athletics.

For his performance on Sunday afternoon Kravchenko was name Hockey East Rookie of the Week.  Montour was named a Top Performer and UMass Athlete of the Week.

The Mack Report has a ton of coverage of both games this weekend.

The Collegian has a recap of Friday, recap of Sunday, and a feature on the effort of Mastalerz and the defense in the win.

USCHO has the recap of Friday’s tie.

UMass hockey alumni Joel Hanley and Eddie Olczyk were on hand for Sunday’s game and talked to the radio crew in between periods.

1 Comment

  1. Mel

     /  January 26, 2015

    Extremely pleasing weekend. I give a little more of the credit to Montour than you do, I think. I know he is only one player, but he seems to have really solidified the defense. And as you wrote, he has been much better on the defensive side than I think any of us expected. I really like his attitude and the way he plays and I think is has become infectious. He seems to play hard all of the time, something we have not seen from this team all season, and I think his teammates have picked up on that. Hey, I could be completely wrong and they could totally tank the rest of the season, but I like the way they have played since the first of the year and I give our new defenseman a lot of credit for that.

    Based on his performance Sunday, I certainly hope Mastalerz gets a few more starts the rest of the way. He clearly deserves the shot.

    Go, U!


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