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UMass Looks To Upset #2 BU; McCutcheon Leaves UMass For UCSB

Massachusetts Minutemen 8-16-1 (3-11-1)  Hockey East T-11th

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#2 Boston University Terriers 15-4-4 (10-2-2)  Hockey East 1st

Almost four months ago Massachusetts and Boston University took to the ice in kind of similar spots.  Both were coming off disappointing seasons with relatively new coaches and featured large freshman classes that would be relied upon to produce early on.  And through two periods the teams looked pretty similar, with BU taking a narrow 2-1 lead into the third period.  But the Terriers exploded for six goals in the final period on the way to an 8-1 win and then the teams went their very separate ways for the next few month.  While the Minutemen were left embarrassed on opening night and would struggle mightily through the entire first half of the season, BU continued their strong play and come into the rematch the second ranked team in the country.

Since these teams met BU has lost only four times.  Harvard is the only other team in the country to have so few losses this year and  they play a truncated schedule like the other Ivies.  Even the losses have been competitive with two being one goal margins, one being a two goal margin, and one being a two goal margin with an empty net goal.  Simply, BU always comes ready to play every night, every period.  So if there are any hopes that they’ll be looking past the Minutemen toward their marquee matchup with #4 Harvard in Monday’s Beanpot game, you’ll probably be disappointed.

Early on when the Terriers were dominating some college hockey fans were waiting for the young team to come back to earth.  That hasn’t happened.  BU is an elite team and has the statistics to prove it.  They are 2nd among Hockey East teams and 9th in the country in goals scored with 3.39.  They are also 2nd among league teams and 4th in the country in goals against with 2.00.  Their specials team play is pretty good too.  Their power play rate is a league best 22.6%, 5th best in the nation.  And their penalty kill of 85.6% is 5th best in Hockey East and 18th in the country.  There aren’t any glaring weaknesses on this team.

Of course offensively the Terriers are led by freshman phenom Jack Eichel.  Eichel leads Hockey East in points and is second nationally with 36.  He’s averaging over an assist a game with 23 in 22 games played, that rate is tops in the country.  Eichel comes into Friday’s game with goals in three straight games, scoring the game winner in two of them.  It’s not a one man show however.  In fact Eichel’s 13 goals is only good for second on his own team.  It’s been linemate Danny O’Regan that has found the back of the net most often for BU.  His 16 goals is tops in the league and 5th nationally.  Nearly half of those goals have come on special teams with 5 coming on the power play and 2 coming shorthanded.  Junior Ahti Oksanen and his 13 goals is another player UMass will need to focus on.

In the offseason it looked like Matt O’Connor would be locked in a battle for the starting job in the BU crease with Sean Maguire.  But Maguire has missed the season due to medical issues and O’Connor has made the most of the opportunity handed to him.  He’s second in the league in both save percentage (.937) and goals against average (1.91).  His 13-3-3 record is best in the league.  Friday’s game will be the first time O’Connor faces UMass as he was injured for the season opener.  He has a 2-0-1 record against the Minutemen over three seasons.  What help O’Connor put up such stellar numbers is having a high quality defense in front of him, highlighted by four NHL draft picks (John Macleod, Brandon Hickey, Doyle Somerby, Matt Grzelyck).

When the teams played in October the UMass looked  disjointed and perhaps disinterested in that nightmarish third period.  That was the beginning of a pattern of poor play that plague the entire first half of the season for the Minutemen.  But, starting with the Catamount Cup tournament, the team has played much, much better, going 4-3-1 in their last 8.  During that time they’ve had an interesting schedule in that they proved themselves with wins against higher and higher tieried teams each successive weekend.  To kick it off was a victory over Air Force, a team near the bottom of the Atlantic Hockey standings at the time (though the Falcons have been almost unbeatable since that game).  Next up UMass managed splits against teams near the bottom of the Hockey East standings in Maine and New Hampshire.  Last weekend the competition improved to a ranked Merrimack team that came into the weekend playing very well.  And UMass surprised everyone by taking three point from them.  This week though the strength of opponent moves right up to the top of the ladder, to one of the very best teams in the country.

To pull off the upset at Agganis Arena tomorrow the Minutemen will have to keep doing what they’re doing.  Just what have been the keys to their recent success?  Well first and foremost they’ve been scoring.  From the 12/29 win over Air Force onward UMass has had the 9th best offense in the country, scoring 3.38 goals per game.  That scoring is coming from all over.  Obviously Frank Vatrano and Shane Walsh have been big factors in that time.  But the freshman, most recently highlighted by Dennis Kravchenko and Brandon Montour, have contributed greatly as well.

It hasn’t just been offense that has made the difference recently.  In the recent stretch UMass has given up 3.00 goals per game, 38th best in the country.  If that sounds pretty average, you’re right.  But this team playing average defense is a huge improvement considering they’ve spent the entire season with the very worst goals against in the country.  The improvement on defense recently is very noticeable.  We’re not seeing as many blown coverages or guys caught up ice or out of position.  It’s also been pointed out that the forwards are rotating on defense much better than they were earlier.  Add that to some solid goaltending by both Henry Dill and Steve Mastalerz and you have a team that’s playing much better in their own end.

Will it be enough to upset the #2 team in the country?  I don’t know.  The Minutemen could play their best game of the season and still lose.  The Terriers are very talented and they’ll be playing on home ice.  But, given what we’ve seen recently from the Minutemen, we can have hope that they’ll fight.  Fight for the win.  Maybe just fight for a point.  But I think people would be surprised if we see the total lack of fight that UMass showed the last time they played the Terriers.  Win or lose I think Friday’s matchup will tell us a lot about just how far this team has come since October.

Beer The Triangle
Sunset Pregame.  Sunset Postgame.  That’s my recommendation for the trip to BU.  Hit Sunset Cantina (aka, Mini-Sunset) right across the street from Agganis before the game and then hit Sunset Grille a short distance away in Allston after.  Unfortunately they no longer have their beer lists online, so my words of advice are “Beware The Reverend”.

Game preview from UMass Athletics.

The Daily Collegian previews are focused on redemption for the earlier loss and riding recent momentum into the game against the #2 Terriers.

Brandon Montour’s quick success at UMass is featured in this piece in his hometown paper (which for some reason believe Troy Power coaches the team).

Speaking of Power, here’s his latest blog post.  It’s interesting to learn that the team will practice at Amherst College’s Orr Rink (the UMass program’s former home rink way back when) to prepare for games at Merrimack.

The Hockey Writers has this profile on former Minuteman Eddie Olzcyk where he says some great things about his UMass career.

While taking on the #2 team in the country is a pretty big deal, the big story out of UMass today was that Athletic Director John McCutcheon is leaving the school to take the AD position at UC-Santa Barbara.  Unless you just started reading FTT you know that my opinion of McCutcheon and his job overseeing the athletic department, and hockey in particular, is not good.  I’m not going rehash all of it now.  If you’re interested in some of my previous thoughts on McCutcheon and his handling of UMass Athletics, here are some of my greatest hits:

June 2012: Radio For Help
July 2012:  Winning Hearts and Minds
November 2012:  Show Me The Money
March 2013:  State of UMass Hockey

That last one on that list included the line, “…I’ve come to the conclusion that, for the good of all involved, John McCutcheon should be somewhere other than Amherst, home of the Massachusetts Minutemen hockey team.”  Well that time has come.  Of course whomever is chosen to replace John McCutcheon will have to focus immediately on the football situation, specifically on trying to find a conference for the program.  I don’t think that UMass necessarily needs to hire a “hockey guy” for the hockey program to benefit.  After all, Ian McCaw was a “hockey guy” and look how that turned out.  No, UMass just needs to hire a competent AD who can address the major issues in the high profile sports but also understands the importance of having a strong athletic department from top to bottom and has the ability to put all programs in a position to be successful.

I’m not sure what this means specifically for coach John Micheletto, who was hired by McCutcheon.  I said it earlier in the season and I still believe that Micheletto would be back next year.  But, he’ll ultimately have to show that he can win with this program to continue to be coach after that.  I don’t think that has changed whatsoever with this news about the AD.

The Massachusetts hockey program has already shown it can be a huge asset to the athletic department and the school.  The program has shown it can produce Stanley Cup winners, fill the Mullins Center to capacity with raucous crowds, and represent the university in a positive manner with success on ice, in the classroom, and in the community.  Now we just need a leader for UMass sports to recognize and maximize that potential.

For coverage of McCutcheon’s departure I recommend following both Matt Vautour, who broke the story for the Gazette, and Dan Malone on MassliveMalone’s poll is especially damning, showing 54% of respondents at the time I write this saying it was “about time” that McCutcheon left UMass.

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6 Comments

  1. desorgher

     /  January 29, 2015

    Only sport in a championship level major conference. Support it.

    Like

  2. WendellJohn

     /  January 30, 2015

    Ding dong, the wicked witch is dead

    Like

    • Will

       /  January 30, 2015

      The fact that I came here to say “ding dong, the wicked witch is dead,” and someone beat me to the punch says a lot about McCutcheon.

      Like

  3. gable

     /  January 31, 2015

    dill or steve m? steve m looked awesome against Merrimack…should have played against bu…we need to find the hot hand and ride him….dill looks tentative and not sharp with his angles etc….refs were after Montour all night- bu home ice cooking refs for sure….b.s.

    Like

  4. Dill was right call, Masterlerz has proven he can’t put back to back good efforts together. Gable, I think you’re actually right about last night. The problem is Mick has bitched to every ref all season and the book is out on him. Now that he has a reason to gripe (make up call 5 on 3s after his team is given a 5 minute major), it falls on def ears. Cried wolf too many times.

    Like

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