The Massachusetts hockey team rebounded nicely from a couple of concerning losses in the past week with a home and home sweep over Hockey East foe UConn. The 4-2 and 5-3 results gives UMass its first four point weekend since January of 2011 when the Minutemen swept a home and home with the Lowell River Hawks. Coming off two blowout losses that saw UMass give up 13 goals to Boston College and Yale, the UConn wins featured solid goaltending and offensive contributions from a number of different players. Not only are the two wins key in terms of points in the Hockey East standings, but UMass picks up an important tiebreaker against a team they may be battling for seeding later on.
A win on Friday in Hartford seemed unlikely with the Minutemen missing four of their regular players. Captain Steven Iacobellis and defenseman Ben Gallacher were serving suspensions from Tuesday’s game at BC, Patrick Lee was out with illness, and Kurt Keats did not play due to injury. But UMass would put the Huskies back on their toes early as Ray Pigozzi scored just 1:14 into the first period. The Huskies would control play for most of the opening stanza though, outshooting UMass 18-12 and would tie the score before the 1st period ended. The teams would trade goals again in the second period, with UConn again holding an advantage in shots on goal during the 20 minutes, setting up a dramatic third period.
The teams would play pretty even for most of the third period, but with just under five minutes left in regulation freshman Austin Plevy would score his first goal since opening weekend to give UMass its third lead of the night. The final minutes would not be without some stress however as a Marc Hetnik boarding penalty with just over three minutes to go gave the UMass penalty kill unit, which had killed all UConn power plays to that point, one last task. With 1:56 left, down by a goal, and on the power play the Huskies would call a timeout and use the opportunity to pull goaltender Rob Nichols to create a 6 on 4 opportunity. UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh’s move would backfire almost immediately however as William Lagesson’s shot/clear attempt, without worry of an icing call, found the empty net on the other end of the ice to give UMass the 4-2 lead. Renyard would turn aside a couple more power play shots to seal the win.
UMass did a lot of things right on Friday. The two numbers that jump off the stat page to me is the team’s performance in the penalty kill and the goaltending provided by Renyard. UMass came into the game with one of the worst penalty kills in the country, stopping opponents only 2/3rds of the time. But on Friday the PK was perfect, keeping UConn off the scoreboard on all six opportunities, despite almost 11 minutes of extra-man team, and even scored a goal while down a man. Helping keep UConn off the board during the power play and at even strength is the fact that the team blocked 18 shots on the night, three times as many as they did against BC on Tuesday. The shots that did get through were nearly all turned away by Renyard who stopped 40 shots, his second 40+ save game of his young career.
Scoring early in the game helped UMass set the tone in their Friday win and they repeated that again on Saturday when the teams came north to Amherst. It was Shane Walsh this time who would get the Minutemen on the board first when he was able to take a Pigozzi pass and take a really impressive shot that just found the inside of the far post. UMass would extend their lead to two just 1:15 later when Kurt Keats, returning from injury, scored his first collegiate school by attacking the net and putting a bouncing puck behind Nichols. UConn would finally end their 0-for on the power play against UMass when they’d convert with the extra man caused by a too many men call.
That power play goal was one of very few scoring chances for UConn in the first two periods as the Minutemen played probably their best team defense of the year during that stretch. UMass allowed just 11 total shots on goal through the first 40 minutes of the game. They’d take a 3-1 lead into the final period when Dominic Trento would put a loose puck in front of Nichols into the back of the net. Trento would score again on a pass from Austin Plevy a few minutes into the third to extend the lead to 4-1.
Most of the final period would belong to the Huskies though as their offense woke up and they’d pour 21 shots on Renyard in the last 20 minutes. Renyard would stand tall yet again though, denying the Huskies throughout the period except for a penalty shot goal by UConn star Alex Lutunov and a meaningless goal in the final seconds. Austin Plevy meanwhile would add his second goal in consecutive nights late in the game to seal the 5-3 win for the Minutemen.
The way that UMass controlled play through the first two periods of Saturday’s game was very impressive. Puck possession is an area where the team will need to improve if they want to compete with the really good teams in the league and was one of the most apparently deficiencies in the losses to BC and Yale. UConn obviously doesn’t have the skill level of the Eagles, but they do have a group of young, talented forwards. Letunov and Tage Thompson are among the best freshmen in Hockey East yet UMass kept them off the board entirely save for Letunov’s penalty shot score. Thompson only tallied one shot on goal all weekend. The more UMass can improve their puck possession and team defense the more pressure they can take off Renyard. Though this weekend he proved that he’s ready to be the go-to guy in net.
I don’t think you could have asked for any better way for the team to respond to the disappointing showings against Yale and Boston College. Especially considering how many key players they were missing on Friday when they were away from the Mullins Center. UMass saw improvement in a number of key areas; specifically goaltending, penalty killing, puck possession, and goal scoring. The team will need to continue their strong play in those areas next weekend when they play another pair of Hockey East games with another four points on the line. They’ll kick things off when they face a ranked Merrimack team on Friday at home before heading up to play at Vermont on Sunday afternoon. For the first time in a long time, maybe since 2011, UMass can go into a league weekend with some undeniable momentum behind them.
Fear The Triangle Player of the Game (Friday) – Nic Renyard
The four league points were the most important aspect to this weekend’s wins. But second most important to me is that UMass has found their goaltender. Renyard had a .932 save percentage on the weekend, including stopping .952% of shots on Friday when he made 40 total saves. The penalty kill unit as a whole did well that night, but Renyard had a lot to do with the Huskies going 0-for-6 with the extra man, making 11 saves when UConn had the power play. He even picked up an assist on Lagesson’s goal that night. Beyond the stats Renyard continues to show very solid technique in net, including minimizing any potential rebounds.
photo by Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics
Fear The Triangle Player of the Game (Saturday) – Dominic Trento
Trento continues to be an important part of UMass’ offense so far this season. On Saturday he had two goals and also assisted on Plevy’s score. Trento’s five goals on the season already matches what he accumulated all of last season and his contributions have gone beyond the score sheet with the energy and defense he also brings.
photo by Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics
While UMass was on their way to sweeping UConn former Minuteman Frank Vatrano was in Montreal making his NHL debut for the Boston Bruins. And like he’s done pretty much every game this season, he scored. Amalie Benjamin has the story on a night Vatrano will certainly never forget.
College Hockey News has an interesting profile on former Minuteman goaltender Kevin Boyle who is putting together a great senior season three years after being cut by UMass. I’ve never understood the move to cut Boyle by Micheletto, but I am happy to see Boyle finding success in his post-UMass career.