12 Massachusetts Minutemen 10-21-2 (5-16-1)
5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish 15-16-5 (10-7-5)
The Massachusetts Minutemen could’ve been on a bus to Boston this weekend to take on the Northeastern Huskies but last week’s loss to UConn means they’ll have to fly to the Midwest for their opening playoff series. UMass will take on the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in the best of three Octofinals in the newly formulated Hockey East playoff system. Pulling off an upset over the 5th seeded Irish will be a tough task for the Minutemen, who have won consecutive games just once this season.
When these teams met earlier in the season it was a weekend to forget for UMass fans. In early December the Irish were struggling when they came into the Mullins Center to face UMass, with just a 1-7-2 record in their prior 10 games. But you wouldn’t have known they were having troubles the way they manhandled the Minutemen, outscoring UMass 11-5 during the weekend sweep. The first game was one of the third period collapses where UMass had a late lead but ultimately fell 7-5. The second game was just a complete lackluster effort in a 4-0 loss that saw the home team register just one shot on net in the first period. If the team is looking for a source of confidence that they can upset the Irish this weekend, looking back to that series in December probably isn’t it.
Notre Dame continued their streaky up and down play after that series. It wasn’t until just before February that they started to win consistently and now come into the playoffs with a 5-2-2 record in their last nine. Their losses have been a narrow 3-2 loss to Providence and a 2-0 defeat to Boston College. Statistically the Irish are pretty middle of the road. They’re 7th among Hockey East teams in goals scored, 7th in goals against, 7th in power play, and 5th in penalty kill.
UMass already knows the two players they’ll have to keep track of offensively, because the pair did a lot of damage in that December series. Mario Lucia’s 19 goals is tied for second among Hockey East skaters, 2 of which came against the Minutemen. Defenseman Robbie Russo, who also had two goals that weekend and looked like the best player on the ice for much of the series, is tied for second in Hockey East for scoring by defensemen. Playing the role of set up man for the Irish has been sophomore Vince Hinostroza who has 30 assists on the season.
In net UMass will likely face freshman Cal Peterson who has started the last seven games for the Irish. It was Peterson who got the shutout win against UMass on the Saturday of the December series after veteran goaltender Chad Katunar gave up 5 the night before. Peterson is playing amazing right now with a .962 save percentage and 1.48 goals against average in his last 8 appearances. Notre Dame has been giving up a lot of shots in recent games, but Peterson has been there to turn them away.
We’ve seen that UMass has learned to win in the second semester as they’ve picked up big victories against some very good opponents. But now they must learn to win consistently. A single signature win against Notre Dame isn’t going to help them. They need to take the series and to do that they’ll need a strong effort each and every game this weekend. Through the last two months they’ve had those big games but they’ve been followed by flops, like the game last weekend against UConn.
UMass will have to do better on offense this weekend than they did the last time they played the Irish. In December UMass only had 39 shots on goal on the entire weekend. The offense has shown, at times, that they can do better and they’ll have to. The Irish have too many weapons to allow them to dominate in puck possession. At the same time Peterson may be the hottest goaltender in the league currently so it’ll be important to pressure him and pressure him with quality chances throughout.
Key players like Frank Vatrano, Dennis Kravchenko, Brandon Montour, Shane Walsh, and Steve Mastalerz, a mix of veterans and freshmen, have really made the difference in recent games and at times put the team on their collective shoulders to carry the team to wins. It’ll be up to them to see if they can rally the others players to play well and play consistently to extend UMass’ season. The team isn’t just playing to tack on a couple more Ws onto this season’s record. They’re playing for the future, to try to bring some kind of confidence and momentum into the offseason and next fall. At the very least you’d hope to see a strong effort from the team just to try to keep playing hockey. Too often we’ve seen the team come out and play uninspired hockey for a period or entire games. If they do that in South Bend they’ll find themselves without any more college hockey to play for months or for some, forever. Hopefully that’s motivation enough for the team this weekend.
Beer The Triangle
Like most UMass fans, I’ll be listening or maybe watching these games from home. While doing so I suggest some good local beer like Mayflower Alden.
The big news for UMass hockey today was that UMass hockey star Thomas Pöck was announced as one of the former Minutemen who will be inducted into the UMass Hall of Fame this year. Pöck is simply one of the best to ever pull on the Massachusetts sweater. He’s the program’s only Hobey Baker finalist. In 2004 he was an All-American and was named Inside College Hockey’s National Defenseman of the Year. That year he helped lead the Minutemen to their first and only appearance in the Hockey East Championship Game. Outside of UMass he has twice represented his native Austria in the Olympics and played professionally in the NHL, AHL, and overseas.
Pöck came to UMass as a forward, but coach Toot Cahoon decided to move him back to defense and changed the fortunes of both Pöck and the team. He was an OK forward but he was a dominant offensive blueliner once he moved back to defense. He had great skating skills, excellent puck handling, and one hell of a slapshot. He was simply thrilling to watch. In 2003-2004 he had 16 goals and 25 assists.
The Hall Of Fame ceremony is scheduled for May 1st.
Here’s an excellent story of recruit Ty Pelton-Byce following in his father’s footsteps as his team plays in the Wisconsin state tournament.