UConn Huskies 3-4-0 (1-3-0) Hockey East T-5th
Massachusetts Minutemen 4-2-1 (0-1-1) Hockey East T-9th
If Hockey East was really serious about cultivating a rivalry on the ice between the Massachusetts and UConn hockey programs this weekend’s series would be taking place in February or March. But instead we have the Minutemen and Huskies meeting in the first week of November. That doesn’t mean these games mean any less in the grand scheme of things though. Both teams are coming off lopsided losses and are looking for a rebound. UMass was hammered 7-0 by #3 Boston College on Tuesday, a game preceded by a 6-1 loss to #13 Yale, while UConn lost 8-2 to Notre Dame in a game played in Brooklyn over the weekend.
The Huskies are 3-4-0 on the season against a mix of opponents so far. They opened the season down south with a split against Alabama-Huntsville before returning to Connecticut to play college hockey’s newest team, Arizona State. They beat the Sun Devils 5-1. The following weekend featured their best win to date when they beat then #7 Boston University 5-2 in the second game of a home and home split. Last weekend they played Notre Dame for two and narrowly lost the first game 2-1 in Hartford before heading to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn where they got blitzed 8-2.
Last year UConn was all about defense and minimizing opponents chances to score, looking to win every game 2-1. This year the Huskies have some more offense than they’ve had in past years and it should make them a little more fun to watch. The 3.14 goals scored per game puts them 23rd in the country in scoring, quite a bit more than the 1.83 goals last season. It’s been a couple of freshman that have been responsible for the offensive explosion; Max Letunov and Tage Thompson. Letunov was all set to play for BU this season but admissions problems led to him heading to Storrs instead. He leads the Huskies with 11 points and 5 goals, tied for fourth among Hockey East players. Thompson, who came to UConn from the USNDTP, has 3 goals, all scored in that win over BU, and 7 points total.
Last year UConn was able to surprise a lot of teams around Hockey East by grabbing a couple goals and then just hunkering down and grabbing a low-scoring close win. They did so with some excellent defense and goaltending. That hasn’t really repeated so far. The Huskies are giving up 3.43 goals per game on 29.57 shots. That should improve as the season goes along as their blueline features three NHL draft picks, including talented freshman Miles Gendron. The biggest problem for the Huskies on the season has been in net. Last year as a sophomore Rob Nichols was one of the better goaltenders in all of Hockey East with a save percentage of .918, nearly single-handedly keeping his team in a lot of games they really had no business being in. So far this year Nichols only has a save percentage of .899 and is giving up 2.93 goals per game. The 7 goals he gave up this past weekend against Notre Dame play a big factor into those stats however.
UMass needs to regroup after losing their last two games, the first losses of the season, by a combined score of 13-1. Both of those games came against top 15 teams in the country (though one could argue that Yale is good enough to be even higher). UConn is not one of the elite teams in the country, but they are still good. At the very least they appear to be better than the UConn team that swept UMass last year.
The Minutemen have to be dually focused on getting their game restarted both offensively and defensively. The offense had to go up against two of the very top goaltenders in the country the last two games in Yale’s Alex Lyon and BC’s Thatcher Demko. They generated some decent chances against Demko on Tuesday but were stymied by Demko’s amazing play. The games against UConn should give players like Dennis Kravchenko, Shane Walsh, and hopefully Austin Plevy a chance to get things going again.
Improving play on defense could be a little more complicated for UMass. The offensive challenges have only been these past two games but the Minutemen have struggled to keep the puck out of their net for the past four games, giving up 23 goals in that time. As I detailed extensively in my BC recap, significant changes to his defensive scheme are likely needed for the team to find long term success. The defensive strategy is just not working currently, just as it hasn’t in the most recent seasons, and it may be wasting what looks to be improved goaltending from Nic Renyard.
These games will serve as a good gauge on these Minutemen. If the last two games were just an aberration and the team truly is improved from last year then they should be expected to take at least 3 points from the Huskies. Worst-case UMass should split this series. Anything less would be a considerable disappointment. A win this weekend would be the first for UMass coach John Micheletto over UConn as his teams have dropped all three games played against the Huskies. An additional challenge UMass will face on Friday is having to play shorthanded as Ben Gallacher and captain Steven Iacobellis suspended due to incidents in the BC game while Patrick Lee is doubtful with illness. But good, talented teams find ways to overcome such adversity. Especially against teams they can expect to battle for positioning in the league standings. Is UMass a good, talented team? We’ll know better after Saturday.
Beer The Triangle
I haven’t been myself but I’m told the City Steam brewery is close to the XL Center in Hartford and is a good place to pregame. I’ve had some of their beers before and have liked them. Enjoy a Naughty Nurse!
The Collegian has their look at the upcoming weekend.
Here’s a preview from the Hartford Courant.
UMass’ recent struggles was part of the This Week In Hockey East piece from USCHO.
Former Minuteman Eddie Olczyk, now behind the bench of Niagara as an assistant coach, will be facing his younger brother who plays for Penn State this weekend.