This weekend’s Massachusetts hockey game were not for the faint of heart. The home and home series with 12th ranked Providence were nearly carbon copies of each other. Nearly. Both featured great goaltending on both sides. UMass taking a lead into the third. UMass ultimately surrendering that lead. But luckily the games had vastly different outcomes.
Shane Walsh got things started on Friday at Schneider Arena with a goal seven and a half minutes into the game. The broadcast crew has now dubbed Walsh “Mr Friday Night” as the goal was his 8th in the last 7 games played on Friday and his 12th in total on the season. Providence would tie the game a few minutes later on a Brandon Tanev goal. However with just over five minutes left in the first period Zack LaRue would take the puck away from a Providence defenseman and put it past Friar goaltender Jon Gilles for the 2-1 lead.
That was it for scoring for quite a while as both goaltenders played strong. On this night it would probably be fair to say that Minuteman goaltender Steve Mastalerz outplayed Gilles, arguably the best goaltender in the league. And it looked like Mastalerz would be rewarded for his tremendous effort. As the final seconds ticked down in the third period Mastalerz had made 40 saves and kept the game at the 2-1 score as it had been since the first. But UMass had spent nearly the entire third period playing back on their heels, getting outshot 14-3. And with 8 seconds left in the game and with Gilles on the bench for the extra man, Ross Mauermann would get the puck past Mastalerz and send the game to overtime. UMass would continue to have problems with possession and overtime would belong to the Friars. Noel Acciari would complete the comeback for the Friars with a goal 1:54 into the extra frame. UMass would head back home for senior night after suffering another heartbreaking third period collapse.
Saturday’s game started with the Senior Night festivities as Mike Busillo, Steven Guzzo, Zack LaRue, Troy Power, Oleg Yevenko, and Steve Mastalerz were recognized together with their familes, including the Yevenkos who came all the way from Belarus. Mastalerz took up exactly where he had left off hours earlier and stopped all 15 Friar shots he faced in a scoreless first period. The game would stay 0-0 until late in the second when Tom Parisi would get called for high sticking. UMass did an excellent job of maintaining possession of the puck during the delayed call, allowing Mastlalerz to leave the ice for the extra attacker. The Minutemen continued to pressure Gilles with the extra man, generating a number of chances. Finally Steven Iacobellis would collect a puck near the crease, skate behind the net, and center the puck backhanded to a collection of Minutemen waiting in front. The puck found Maddison Smiley’s stick and he, without hesitation, put it past Gilles for his first collegiate goal. It was a terrific heads up play from Iacobellis and nice to see Smiley, who has continued to make solid contributions throughout the season, get his first score for the Minutemen.
So again UMass would take a one goal lead into the third and again the Friars would dominate play in that period. This time Providence would pour 15 shots on Steve Mastalerz in the final stanza, as the senior would continue to make acrobatic save one after another. But Accari, after scoring the game winner the prior night, would have more heroics in store and tied the game at one apiece with 4:40 left in the game. Dread settled over the crowd as another Friar goal seemed likely, thereby sending fans and senior families home with broken hearts.
But Mastalerz stood tall for the remainder of the game and for the second night in the row the teams would play extra hockey. After scoring the tying the game the night before Maurermann would get the win for the Friars on Saturday when he scored as a rush of Providence players rushed the UMass net. But, the play would be reviewed, even as the Friar team stormed the ice in celebration. And the goal would be overturned when it was determined a Friar made contact with Mastalerz before the score. UMass would gain possession later in the extra period and put the puck on net. Gilles would make the initial save but the puck would trickle behind him in the crease where Frank Vatrano pounced on it and slammed it home for the UMass win.
It was a great win and so nice for the fans considering how few there have been at home this year. After missing out on the win the night before, despite a career performance from Mastalerz, to lose another heartbreaker would’ve been, well, heartbreaking. Mastalerz did his part in the reprise the next night. But it would be a couple of first year players (essentially) who ended up saving Senior Night. Smiley would get his first score while Vatrano would score his team leading 17th. A weekend sweep would’ve been nice, especially since they were so close to getting it, but even the split showed that this team continues to progress as the season winds down. You have to especially be happy at how the team is playing defensively. They allowed just three goals on the weekend. A lot of that had to do with Mastlalerz, but the rest of the team had a role in shutting down the Friars too. What was especially was encouraging was to see the penalty kill go 7 for 7 during the series.
Despite the fact that the team has picked up some key conference wins since the new year began, they’ll still need a mix of hard work and help not to finish in the Hockey East cellar. UMass finds themselves two points behind Merrimack with the Minutemen holding the tiebreaker against the Warriors. UMass needs to beat UConn in their lone remaining game while needing UNH to sweep Merrimack in the two games being played in Durham next weekend. It’s not much, but to find a way out of last place after the deep hole the team found themselves in earlier this season would be a nice little momentum builder heading into the playoffs.
Fear The Triangle Player of the Game (Friday) – Steve Mastalerz
It’s tough to say that Mastalerz is playing the best hockey of his UMass career since he did have some huge wins early in his time in Amherst. But I think it’s safe to say that he’s playing he’s putting together his best play in a consistent manner night after night as a Minuteman. If UMass makes some kind of miraculous run come March, it’ll have a lot to do with Mastalerz’s performance and leadership.
Fear The Triangle Player of the Game (Saturday) – Frank Vatrano
I very easily could give this to Mastalerz too given how well he played on the second consecutive night. But it was Vatrano’s clutch play that snatched victory from the claws of defeat and prevented another heart break. Vatrano has scored a lot of snipe goals with his heavy shot this season, but Saturday’s tap in may have been his most enjoyable score of the season.
Mastalerz had a .953 save percentage on the weekend, saving 40 or more shots each night. And for that he was named Co-Defensive Player of the Week by Hockey East.