This has been one of the most frustrating and disappointing seasons of UMass hockey in the 20 plus years that I’ve watched the program. There have been blowouts. There have an unthinkable amount of late game collapses. There have been games, as recently as last Friday, where the team has looked unfocused and at times disinterested. It’s been tough to understand why the team has played this way and know exactly what they were truly capable of. Last night the Massachusetts hockey players showed that despite the up and down results of the season, they are in fact a team that can play inspired and amazing hockey. They are a team that can execute at a high level on consistently through long stretches. They can battle to get back into a game and continue to battle to get a win. They are a team that will leave it all out on the ice for a victory. They are a team that has heart. A lot of heart. The prevailing problem this season has been that the team too often failed to put in a total 60 minute effort. But they put in a 60 minute effort last night. Twice in fact. And then did it some more. In the 152nd minute of last night’s five overtime marathon, the longest game in NCAA history, Shane Walsh’s game winner sent all the Minutemen back to the locker room as heroes.
It didn’t seem like were watching history when the game started (including those of us watching the online stream). The biggest takeaway from the beginning of the game was how well UMass played right from the puck drop. When these teams last played in December the Minutemen registered just a single shot on net in the entire first period. In fact they only had 14 for the entire game as Irish goaltender Cal Peterson got the shutout in the 4-0 win. UMass would have 10 shots on net in the first 10 minutes alone last night. But Peterson came into the night as the hottest goaltender in Hockey East and probably all of college hockey and turned away all 16 first period shots by UMass.
On the other end, senior goaltender Steve Mastalerz got off to a shaky start. Notre Dame’s third shot of the game was a wide angle wrister by Jake Evans. Mastalerz made the save but the angle caused the puck to skid to the far faceoff circle where Sam Herr easily put it into the open net. Mastalerz would make some nice saves after that, including stopping a two on one shorthanded rush by Notre Dame later in the first. But halfway through the second the Irish struck again when Vince Hinostroza wristed one home for a goal that Mastalerz really should’ve had. Despite an advantage in shots and possession the Minutemen found themselves down 2-0 halfway through regulation.
To that point the game was playing out as you probably would’ve expected. The Minutemen had showed up to play but were unable to solve Peterson. Meanwhile I bounce here and missed play there had given the higher seeded Irish the lead. But then it was time for the first Minuteman standout of the night, Steven Iacobellis. His first goal was one of those puck luck ones that are sometimes needed to get back into a game. With UMass on the power play there was a scrum in front of Peterson’s crease. As Iacobellis was getting knocked down by an Irish player the loose puck knocked off his skate and into the net. 2-1. Shortly after though Notre Dame would get their own power play goal to make is 3-1 when Oleg Yevenko and Mike Busillo took back to back penalties, essentially giving the Irish a four minute power play. The penalties were costly obviously, but what’s amazing is that they were the only two trips to the box UMass took all night. The Minutemen had averaged nearly 14 penalty minutes per game all season. They had just the four last night.
Iacobellis would strike again just over a minute later however to cut the Irish lead to 3-2. His second goal of the night came off his stick, not his skate this time. Iacobellis had only scored 6 goals all season but had just scored his second of the period. And for a while, it looked like he had a hat trick in that second period. With just seconds left in the period Frank Vatrano took a shot that Peterson saved but couldn’t control. As it was loose the crease Troy Power and Iacobellis took a couple swipes at it and it made it past the goal line to tie the game. Initially it looked like Iacobellis had been the one to put it in. There was a lot of confusion though as initially it was credited to Power, and then to Iacobellis, and for a while the gametracker even credited it to Ray Pigozzi. As of this morning though the box score says Power put it past the line before Iacobellis made contact with it. I doubt either care too much about who got the goal. They only cared that after two periods the score was now 3-3. And it would stay that way for hours and hours.
While his team was finding ways to get the puck past Peterson, Mastalerz had settled down on the other end. He had found the zone in terms of positioning and was really starting to make some spectacular glove saves as the game went on. The teams would trade chances in the third period but the two goaltenders kept them off the scoreboard. Regulation ended with the game tied. UMass had outshot the Irish 39-21 in the first three periods, but it would be Notre Dame would control the puck more in the extra frames.
The overtimes all played out differently. Through some stretches the teams would settle in, making more methodical passes and trying to find a crack in the opposing defense. At other times the teams would streak back and forth across the ice trading odd man rushes. This continued even into the later overtimes and made you wonder how the players still had the energy to skate with so much speed and purpose. One thing that lacked from my viewing of the game via the online stream is being unable to watch the benches. When I attended the triple overtime game against Maine in the 2004 Hockey East Championship, I remember watching the players on the bench having to help haul their teammates over the boards during line changes due to the exhaustion that was occurring. I assume that was happening last night as well off camera. But the way both teams continued to play hard and with determination was remarkable.
By the fourth overtime though the speed of play slowed considerably and even basic plays like an outlet pass or getting up after going down to block a shot looked draining. Through it all though Mastalerz and Peterson were there. They made the routine saves. They made the tough ones. Still unbelievably quick with the glove or the pad. Still able to get across their crease to make the big stop. And they got help. Jake Horton made a diving poke check from behind in the third overtime to prevent a breakaway. Busillo goes down to make a block. And there were near game winners along the way. Both the Irish and Frank Vatrano found the post during the extra frames. Keith Burchett, who played one of his best games of the season, had an Irish defender just barely get his stick on the puck as he tried to shoot into an empty net. Mario Lucia had his stick break just as he thought he found an opening beyond Mastalerz and threw the broken wood aside in frustration.
In the background of actual play and players trying to get the win was the focus on the length of the game. Ten minutes into triple overtime the game surpassed the 2004 thriller against Maine as the longest game in Hockey East history. Halfway into the 4th overtime the game moved into the top three of all time. Two minutes into the 5th overtime, the 8th period of hockey, the game was the 2nd longest. Only the 150 minutes and 22 seconds played by Union and Quinnipiac in a 2010 ECAC quarterfinal game had gone longer.
Just over 10 minutes into the 5th overtime Massachusetts and Notre Dame had officially played in the longest game in NCAA history. And then, Shane Walsh, dubbed Mr Friday Night due to his recent stretch of scoring regularly on Friday evenings, ended it. The game indeed started on Friday night, but ended on Saturday morning, nearly six hours after the puck first dropped.
This was one of those games where you feel sorry that there had to be a loser. Losers are definitely not how I would describe the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this morning. Like the Minutemen they fought amazingly through 150 minutes of play. They went out there shift after shift and tried to get the win. None played better than goaltender Cal Peterson whose 87 saves are now an NCAA record. What’s even more amazing is Peterson was coming off a game against Boston College where he only had 55 saves.
But it would be Steve Mastalerz that would get the win in net. His 75 saves are a new UMass record, surpassing the 59 made by Gabe Winer in the 2004 Hockey East championship. He, Iacobellis, and Walsh are obviously the ones who will get most of the mentions when this game is discussed. But each and every Minuteman who was on the ice deserves a ton of credit and respect. You cannot keep an opponent off the scoreboard for five and a half periods without every single player doing their job. Every player gave everything they had last night, all the way up to their own physical limits, and then kept going. After all the doubts and questions that hung over this team all season I am so proud of what the team showed last night. It was simply one of the best displays of teamwork and sacrifice that I’ve ever seen from a UMass team.
Last night’s win will get the team a lot of attention. It will be featured on Sportscenter all day and be in lots of newspapers. Talk of the game is dominating social media right now and even the casual sports fan has heard of what transpired in South Bend last night. But beyond the publicity and history, beyond minutes played or shot totals, beyond the sight of hockey being played in the wee hours of the morning, something extremely important was accomplished by UMass. They won. The Minutemen took a 1-0 lead in the best of three Hockey East Octofinal series. The teams, amazingly, will meet again in less than 8 hours on the ice at Compton Ice Arena. And in that game UMass, winners of just five league games and last place finishers, can win to move onto the quarterfinals. With one eye on the present and one eye on the future this team getting beyond this opening round would mean a lot. It would give the current team a worthy accomplishment to embrace in a frustrating season. But it would also give the returning players some much needed momentum as they head into the offseason to prepare for next fall. Last night was history. But tonight UMass plays for the future. For the sake of everyone, players and fans, let’s try to keep to 60 minutes though.
Fear The Triangle Player of the Game – Steve Mastalerz
I’m going to continue my policy of not giving Co-POTG awards. Certainly Walsh and Iacobellis’ contributions to last night are more than worthy of recognition. But Mastlaerz was spectacular. He made the routine saves, he made the tough saves. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him with a quicker glove than last night. 75 saves. Amazing.
Hockey SID Jillian Jakuba, who also deserves a ton of credit for the job she did last night, is already up and at it this morning consolidating all the stories around the internet covering last night’s win. So it’s easier if I just direct you to her post on UMass Athletics rather than repeat her work. Included on there is the SportsCenter clip.
Elsewhere in the Hockey East playoffs last night:
- Merrimack, winless in their previous nine games, shocked everyone by beating Northeastern 3-2 in overtime (just one? Please….)
- Vermont beat Maine 4-2 by getting two goals in the final minutes of the game.
- New Hampshire pounded UConn 5-2 as Grayson Downing and Tyler Kelleher had two goals apiece for the Wildcats.