You can say one thing, this surely was a memorable season. Not really for the right reasons though. To say the season was a disappointing one would be an understatement. It started poorly back in October, reached depths that I thought the program would never ever see again, showed some inconsistent promise later on, and then fell completely flat in the final two games. Not much was expected of this team considering they lost two hundred-point scorers last season in Mike Pereira and Conor Sheary as well as other key contributors like Branden Gracel and Joel Hanley. Plus the team had nine freshman to start the season and the jewel of the class, Brandon Montour, wouldn’t even join the team until second semester. Still, it was hoped that, perhaps after some early growing pains, the team would be able to make a material improvement upon last year’s 8 wins and 10th place finish. That did not happen.
For the most part the schedule was a fairly easy one by Hockey East standards. What stood out is that beside an early trip to Michigan State, the team never had to leave New England during the regular season. The season kicked off with a home game against Boston University, a team that finished just ahead of UMass last season, and a game that I thought would feature two young, evenly matched. Boy was I wrong. UMass dropped that first game 8-1 in the most lopsided season opener since a 10-1 loss to Williams in 1964. At the time the blowout was explained away as a fluke or product of having so many freshman, but we would see these types of wide margin results very often throughout the season. It certainly did look like a fluke the very next week after Minutemen split a pair of games in East Lansing against the Spartans, beating a very good goaltender in Jake Hildebrand. A win at Northeastern the next Friday as Henry Dill stole a game from the Huskies and the team was at 2-2-0 and looking pretty solid.
The following night though the team would lose at Boston College kicking off a stretch where they’d go 1-6-0 in their next seven games with the only win coming against AIC. From the BC game the team travelled to Orono for a pair of games against Maine. Each night they had a chance to win but ultimately lost both games, the first in overtime and the second after losing a two goal lead in the third. Dropping third period leads would also become a habit for the team during the season. Following the AIC win the team would drop another game to BC and then came what I consider the absolute low point of the season. The 11-1 spanking that Vermont put on the team was shameful. I always avoid saying a team quit, because I think that’s impossible to really know. But it certainly looked like the team quit that night though, dropping their record to 3-7-0. After losing another game to Vermont the team looked better, thanks to improved defense and goaltending, when they split a home and home with #14 Quinnipiac. There was hope that the team could use that weekend to build momentum going into a home series against a Notre Dame team that was struggling mightily. Instead the Irish swept the Minutemen, scoring 11 goals in the process. Another lopsided loss, this one a 8-3 decision to Northeastern in front of maybe 1000 people in the Mullins Center, thankfully put the first half of the season to an end. UMass had gone 4-12-0 in their games before winter break.
Before Christmas the team would drop a non-conference game to Providence in the Catamount Classic, but rebounded to put together a solid 5-1 win over Air Force in the second game of that tournament. Again the hope was that UMass, now with Montour in the fold, could start to make a push in Hockey East. But a 4-3 loss to UConn in the first ever league game between the schools showed the team still had a ways to go. The month of January wasn’t too bad however as the team picked up a non-conference win against Maine, a win over UNH, and three points from a ranked Merrimack team. They then had to play a tough stretch where they faced BU, Northeastern, Lowell for three, and Providence for two. They did a little better than expected with a win and tie against the Riverhawks and then an upset over the #12 Friars. They played just well enough in the final two months of the season where they had a chance to finish in 11th place in the league and avoid a first round trip to South Bend in the playoffs. They got the help they needed when UNH swept Merrimack in the final weekend but again the Minutemen failed to show up, this time against UConn in Hartford. They gave up four goals to a team that hadn’t scored that many in months and couldn’t muster up enough offense to get on the board themselves.
Against Notre Dame in the playoffs the team got a lot of positive attention when Shane Walsh’s heroics and Steve Mastalerz’s stellar goaltending in Game 1 got them the win in the longest NCAA game ever played. Just as importantly it got them a playoff win. I think if the team had moved onto the quarterfinals it would’ve made fans more forgiving of the regular season failures and would’ve given them hope going into next year. But Games 2 and 3 continued the troubling themes we had seen throughout the year. A tie game slipped away quickly in the third period of Game 2 to force a Game 3 where Notre Dame blew the doors off the Minutemen 7-0. The season ended as it began, with a seven goal loss.
It was pretty clear what UMass’ biggest problem was this season; keeping the opponent out of their net. The team allowed an average of 4.22 goals per game. Not only was that by far the worst in Hockey East, 11th place Maine was almost a goal per game better, but it was 2nd to last in all of college hockey. It was the highest goals per game allowed by UMass since the 1996-97 season. The number was significantly worse than the 3.12 given up last year. What contributed to that number? It’s tough to say. The goaltending could’ve been better obviously. But the style of play, having the defensemen play so aggressive constantly pinching in, seemed to lead to a lot of offensive chances for the opponents. At the same time there were possessions by opponents in the UMass zone where the UMass skaters seemed to consistently miss an assignment, giving an opponent an unmolested chance from a choice spot. It also didn’t help that at 76% the team had the 5th worst penalty kill in the country, a number that was down significantly from the past few years when the PK has been middle of the pack in Hockey East. Not aiding the penalty kill situation was that UMass has had the second most penalty minutes for two years in a row.
Offense was up for the Minutemen, rising to 2.75 this year from 2.24 last year. However scoring was up across the league and UMass had the 10th highest scoring offense in the league in both years. Still, considering that everyone thought the Minutemen would struggle after losing 57% of their goal scoring from last year, the offensive output was a pleasant surprise. Of course a big part of that boost in offense had to do with Frank Vatrano, whom I named my MVP yesterday, joining the team for his first full season. Vatrano’s 18 goals is the highest since Casey Wellman in 2009-10 and the third highest total by any Minuteman since 2000 (Greg Mauldin scored 21 in 2002-03). Vatrano scored six of those goals on a power play that converted 15% of chances on the season. This was a considerable dropoff from the 22% in the prior year, but that also shows that UMass scored much more goals at five on five this past season which is something they struggled with last year.
The biggest positive statistically was how much the large freshman class contributed. UMass first years were second nationally in points per game with 3.08, behind only Boston University and their much heralded freshmen. The Minutemen freshmen were 4th in the country in goals per game with 1.00.
I don’t really like to give out grades to each player, but I do want to at least give a few thoughts on each player’s performance this season. Lets start with the forwards:
Emerson Auvenshine: Auvenshine only played in four games this season. He did prove versatile by playing some defense early on when injuries were an issue. He did pretty well there and even scored a game winning goal against Northeastern. Then unfortunately he had a season ending injury at the beginning of January. Even more unfortunately he was then suspended from the team for an off ice incident.
Keith Burchett: Butchett was a big surprise when he scored two goals in just his second game. But those two goals against Michigan State ended up being his only scores of the season. Still, as recently as this past weekend in South Bend he was able to make an impact even if he rarely ended up on the goal sheet. He has high energy and an ability to do a lot of different things for the team.
Steven Guzzo: Guzzo’s scoring declined steadily in his four years as he was asked to play more of a third and fourth line role during his last couple years. Still, he did so well. There’s not much to say about Guzzo’s play other than he put in a lot of minutes and rarely made mistakes.
Steven Iacobellis: In yesterday’s post I gave him my Under The Radar award and I stick by that. With his passing and puck handling skills he’s someone who makes his teammates better. It seemed like whenever a key goal was scored in a game this past season, Iacobellis was somehow involved. He will be a huge part of this team next year.
Dennis Kravchenko: Kravchenko was quite simply one of the best freshman forwards in Hockey East and the country. He had the most points on the team, averaging almost a point a game. I think if there’s not a Jack Eichel in the league you would’ve seen Kravchenko getting a lot more attention in league awards. He’ll be expected to carry his share of the scoring load next year. Probably needs to work on his defensive game however.
Zack LaRue: LaRue had his best year as a Minuteman with five goals and four assists. As an alternate captain I thought he showed a lot of leadership when he was on the ice. The most amazing thing about LaRue’s season was that he was diagnosed with mono at the end of December and at the time it was unknown if he’d even return at all for the season. He ended up shaking his illness off in a matter of weeks and missed only five games. That’s dedication.
Patrick Lee: Lee probably didn’t get nearly enough recognition during the season that he deserved, but as just a freshman he was already one of the best set up guys on the team. He was fourth on the team in assists with 15. He had multi-point nights on six different occasions. And he did all that while staying out of the box, taking just two penalties all year. He has the potential to be one of the top three Minutemen in points next year.
Riley McDougall: McDougall had a pretty quiet first half of the season but a goal in the 6-4 win over UNH in January seemed to boost his confidence. That first goal kicked off a stretch where he scored four goals in five games. Overall he had five goals total in the second half of the season and it’ll be interesting to see how he does offensively next season. Even when he wasn’t scoring he had a lot of solid two way play.
Anthony Petrella: Petrella came to UMass after scoring a ton of goals with prep powerhouse Shattuck St. Mary’s. That offensive game never really materialized in his freshman season. Some of that may be that at 18 he younger than most other freshmen on the team and in the league. Petrella will likely have to prove himself at the beginning of next year if he wants to secure regular playing time.
Ray Pigozzi: I think it was expected that Pigozzi would be a big part of the offense this year after a strong freshman campaign. But his numbers ended up being about this same as the previous season. He did have a couple occasions where he was hampered with injury and hopefully can build upon his stats if he stays healthy next year.
Troy Power: Power in his time at UMass has been sort of a power (no pun intended) forward with a bit of a scoring touch and he’s played that role well. He did well on the ice this year and did well offensively, though was unable to match last year’s 10 goals. He’ll go into the books as a rare two year captain and you have to wonder if things would’ve turned out differently in South Bend last weekend if he’d been able to dress and lead his team on the ice.
Dominic Trento: Like a lot of the freshman Trento got off to a bit of a quiet start which was made worse by an injury that caused him to miss half of November and most of December. But when he came back he looked like a totally different player and ended up being a regular contributor on offense from then on. The team had a winning record when he registered a point and he’s someone who I look forward to seeing how his game develops in his second year at UMass. He seems to have the potential to be a big contributor.
Frank Vatrano: Honestly, I don’t know what more I can say about him that I put in my post from yesterday or earlier in this post. He came to UMass with a lot of hype and has absolutely been as good as advertised. Hopefully he doesn’t have too many people whispering in his ear during this offseason because losing him to the pros would be devastating.
Shane Walsh: Wow. After watching Walsh for his first two years I never would’ve expected the kind of offensive breakout like we saw this season, even though I knew he had shown he could score goals in juniors. If he can repeat that performance next year he and Vatrano will be a formidable one-two punch in Hockey East.
Now onto the defensemen:
Brennan Baxandall: Like a few others on the roster Baxandall was asked to switch between forward and defenseman depending on the roster needs at the time. And I thought he did well in both positions. Baxandall is one of those quiet type of players where if he’s doing well you don’t necessarily notice him because he’s not making mistakes. He’s not flashy but has the potential to be a dependable presence on defense.
Mike Busillo: I think Busillo was hurt by the fact that he’s a defensive defenseman who has had to play in a system that encourages offensive blueliners. But Busillo went out there the past few years and just positioned himself well and tried not to do anything too crazy. And I think it translated to a consistent presence on the blueline that will probably be missed next year.
Ben Gallacher: I thought Gallacher showed tremendous improvement from last season to this season. In both years he was able to put up offensive numbers, getting double digits in point both years. But in a year where UMass gave up a ton of goals, I thought Gallacher’s defensive play improved dramatically. He probably still has a little ways to go, but he seems to be on a trajectory for a very good senior year.
Marc Hetnik: Hetnik was another player who was asked to play both defense and forward at times and I thought he did well. In fact, depending how the roster shakes out for next year, he seemed comfortable enough at forward that it may make sense to move him there full time.
Jake Horton: Horton kind of fooled us early on when he grabbed 3 points in his first 4 games and looked like he was going to have a big presence offensively. Offense is definitely part of his game but I thought he did well in being a good all around defenseman for much of the season. I think the play I’ll remember him the most for will be the diving poke check from behind to break up a breakaway during one of the later overtimes periods this past Friday.
Brandon Montour: It seems like we spent the entire first semester asking “When does Montor get here? Is he actually coming?” Well he finally got to Amherst in mid-December and the 2nd round draft pick ended up being just what the team needed. He was a big part of the uptick in wins during the second half with his nearly a point a game play and ability to create havoc for opposing defenses. He definitely needs to cut down on the stick infractions though as his 15 penalties were 2nd most on the team despite playing a shortened season. UMass taking a big step forward next year in the Hockey East standings will depend on Montour’s return.
Maddison Smiley: It was tough to get a feel for Smiley because he missed some significant time due to injury. I think those times in the stands watching made it tough for him to truly acclimate to the college game and get in a rhythm. But that seemed to change in the final of the weeks of the season when he was one of the better players at times. If I were to give out grades Smiley would get an incomplete, but I’m really looking forward to see how he comes out at the start of next season.
Oleg Yevenko: I said it in my senior tribute but Yevenko isn’t appreciated nearly as much as he should be. Like Busillo he’s a defensive defenseman playing in entirely the wrong system. He’s worked really hard to be a mobile defenseman but I think was caught out of position a lot because he was overthinking the offense first system. I think his game took a bit of a step back this season because he was trying to do way too much. But at the same time I hate to think what would’ve happened if he wasn’t out there this season.
Before I discuss the goaltenders I have to say that I find it impossible to judge their performances this season. The defense did a poor job for all the reasons I listed earlier. The goaltenders could’ve been better, but the amount of times they were hung out to dry by the players in front of them was shocking. That said, here’s what I thought:
Henry Dill: Dill came in from the start and absolutely outperformed my expectations. He flat out stole that game against Northeastern in October and came up big in games against Quinnipiac, Maine, and UNH. He struggled at the end and it seemed as if maybe opponents had gotten the scouting report on him. Still, he’ll be counted on to battle for the starting spot next year so hopefully he’ll be able to build off of the positives of this season.
Steve Mastalerz: Mastalerz seemed a bit unlucky in the first half of the season with the team in front of him putting in bad games when he was in net. It’s amazing to think he didn’t get his first win until January 25th. But down the stretch when the team needed someone to take over the crease, it was him. Mastalerz was a big part of the wins the team was able to gain in the second half of the year and his performance in the five overtime game will put him in the annals of UMass history.
Alex Wakaluk: Wakaluk only had some mop up duty in a couple games; the win over AIC and the 11-1 blowout to Vermont. Situations would have to change drastically for Wakaluk to make it into the goaltender rotation next season.
That’s it for part one of my season recap. Tomorrow I want to dedicate the entire post to the job done by the coaching staff and talk about the current state of UMass hockey.
The big news today was that Mike Busillo became the first UMass player from this year’s squad to sign a pro contract. Busillo signed with the Stockton Thunder of the ECHL where he’ll be playing alongside Mike Pereira and Adam Phillips. Busillo is expected to be in the lineup tonight when the Thunder take on the Ontario Reign and Rocco Carzo.
The Lowell Sun had this profile on former Minuteman turned River Hawk Kevin Boyle which includes discussion on him being cut from UMass only to land in Lowell. That whole situation will continue to reflect poorly on Coach Micheletto, not helped by the fact that he never publicly commented why he made such a move in the first place.