The Massachusetts Minutemen hope to continue their strong start to the season as they head south to Trenton, New Jersey where they’ll spend Halloween weekend participating in the Capital City Classic. UMass will take on the Maine Black Bears in a non-conference matchup on Friday evening before facing either #13 Yale or Princeton on Saturday. This weekend’s action will represent the beginning of the regular season for the two Ivy League participants.
Maine Black Bears 0-2-3 (0-0-0) Hockey East T-7th
Massachusetts Minutemen 3-0-1 (0-0-1) Hockey East T-5th
Maine’s season got off to a pretty good start with a couple surprising ties as they hosted this year’s Icebreaker tournament in Portland. The Black Bears, who were picked by the coaches to finish 10th in Hockey East, kicked off their season with a 3-3 tie against the Michigan State Spartans. The next night they battled then #4 North Dakota to a 1-1 tie despite being outshot 45-20. The big story of that game was the debut of freshman goaltender Rob McGovern who stopped 44 North Dakota shots. They started the next weekend with another 1-1 tie over a strong opponent, this time against Union in Schenectady. Their tie streak would end there though as they fell to the Dutchmen 2-0. In their most recent game they dropped a 4-0 decision to then #14 Quinnipiac 4-0 in Hamden, CT.
Goaltending and defensive play has been the strength of the Black Bears during the young season. The 2.20 goals allowed per game is 12th best in the country and the team boasts a save percentage of .940. Of the five games played so far junior Matt Morris has started three. He’s 0-2-1 with a .912 save percentage. But it’s been McGovern with the better stats so far, picking up a tie in each of his starts and stopping a staggering .973% of shots faced. It seems likely that the Minutemen would see the 6’4” McGovern in net on Friday.
Offensively is where Maine has struggled, something not entirely unexpected after star players Devin Shore and Ben Hutton leaving this past spring. The Black Bears are dead last in the country in scoring after finding the net just 5 times in their 5 games. The team isn’t generating a lot of shots to begin with, just 25 per game, and even when they are they have a tough time getting past opposing goaltenders. Maine skaters are scoring on just 3.9% of their shots and only 2.3% at even strength. Junior forward Brian Morgan is the only player with multiple goals, 2, so far for Maine.
A matchup of UMass, currently scoring on a national best 17.9% of their shots, versus the strong goaltending of Maine will be an interesting one. Especially if it is McGovern in net, as he owns the 3rd best save percentage in the country. Outside of Sacred Heart’s Brett Magnus, the Minutemen have faced below average goaltenders statistically. It will be interesting to see how they fare against a better, and bigger goaltender than they’ve seen so far.
#13 Yale Bulldogs 0-0-0 (0-0-0) ECAC T-1st
The other Capital City Classic game on Friday will feature another non-conference matchup between league foes as the 13th ranked Yale Bulldogs take on tournament host Princeton. The Bulldogs are the only ranked team in the tournament and are coming off a season where they finished 3rd in the ECAC. The Bulldogs went 18-10-5 last season, falling to Boston University in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Yale was successful last year because of how well they kept the puck out of the net. They gave up a national low 1.64 goals per game. They also had the best penalty kill with 90.1%. They return the most important part of that defensive core in goaltender Alex Lyon. Lyon led the nation with his .939 save percentage and 1.62 goals against average last year. He also accumulated the most shutouts in the country with 7, despite the Ivies playing less games than other teams. The Bulldogs will have to replace captain Tommy Fallen and Matt Killian from last year’s blueline.
The 2.61 goals the Bulldogs scored per game last year was 38th in the country and their power play was 28th. Yale does return nearly all of their top scorers from last year’s squad, including Mike Doherty who found the net 12 times last year. They’ll also look to Frank DiChiara and Cody Learned to increase their goal-scoring from last year too. Yale won’t have to get too many goals though to be successful with their goaltending and defense. It’s no wonder the ECAC coaches picked them to win the league this season.
Like Maine, if the Minutemen face Yale it’ll be a huge test for what is so far a high-octane scoring team. Not only do the Bulldogs feature a goaltender with an elite level save percentage, but they only allowed 26.9 shots per game last year, 8th fewest in the country. To beat the Bulldogs UMass will need to do a better job with puck possession and generating more shots in order to get enough grade A chances against Lyon.
Princeton Tigers 0-0-0 (0-0-0) ECAC T-1st
Tiger Head Coach Ron Fogarty is in his second year and is in the midst of a major rebuilding effort. Princeton struggled under previous coach Bob Prier and Fogarty inherited a team that won just 6 games in 2013-14. Last year their win total fell to just 4 as they went 4-23-3 in Fogarty’s first year. The team did not lose too much over the offseason, so 2015-16 could be their first step forward back to success.
Last year’s Tiger squad featured the very worst offense in the country, scoring a miniscule 1.30 goals per game. How bad was the offense? Jonathan Liau and Ben Foster led the team in goals scored with just four. Four. Both those players return to the Tigers this year.
Because of the team he’s on Colton Phinney is a bit of an underrated goaltender. Last year the Tigers allowed over 34 shots on goal a night and inflated Phinney’s goals against average to 3.08. But he did pretty well considering the amount of rubber he faced and had a respectable save percentage of .910. If the Tigers can do better with puck possession and give Phinney a breather between shots, he’s good enough to win them a few more games through his play in net.
The opponents for UMass in this tournament are intriguing because of their diversity. The Minutemen will get a chance to face a Maine team who was picked to also finish near the bottom of the league, but in a game that won’t actually count towards league standings. Friday’s game can be a bit of a warmup before the team’s meet again in January. After that UMass will have to face either the team picked to finish 1st in the ECAC or the team picked to finish last. Yale presents a huge challenge, as they’re good enough to be considered a top ten team. Princeton on the other hand is a team that, if UMass is truly improved from last season, they should beat.
All teams though will feature a goaltender that ranges from good to stellar, which is a step up from what the team has faced so far this season. The Minutemen have been successful thus far because even though they haven’t dominated when it comes to shots taken, they’ve created quality chances and have scored on a high percentage of them. They’ve done so at even strength and on the power play.
While I’ve been focusing a lot of this preview on the opposing goaltenders, it will be interesting to see what happens in UMass’ net as well. Henry Dill struggled last week against New Hampshire, giving up all six Wildcat goals before Nic Renyard came in an stopped all 8 shots he faced. Do we see both goaltenders this weekend or does coach John Micheletto allow Renyard to get the nod both nights? My guess is both goaltenders will get a start since the team will have a quick turnaround to a key game at Boston College on Tuesday. So if that’s the case, fans will want to see how Dill reacts to last week’s disappointing performance.
UMass will look to win just their third in-season tournament ever this weekend with the previous ones being the Lightning Classic in 2007 and the Ledyard Classic a couple seasons ago. Friday’s game kicks off a tough stretch of 5 games in 10 days but it’ll be important for the team to focus just on the games in New Jersey and not the upcoming league matchups. A chance to grab some early season hardware while continuing their surprising winning ways should give the team something to concentrate on and provide for a little extra motivation.
Beer The Triangle
Earlier this year I had a chance to try the Garden State’s Carton Brewing for the first time and was very impressed. If you’re making the trek down the parkway to the game I highly recommend finding some.
Masslive has a story on Donnie Moorhouse’s return to the play-by-play role for UMass hockey. It’s been great to have his familiar voice back calling the plays again. Donnie and Brock Hines relaying the action play a huge part in many fans’ UMass hockey memories, including my own.
Mark Divver of the Providence Journal has this piece on Frank Vatrano.