The Massachusetts hockey team hit the road this weekend and had to deal with two very different environments while taking on a couple league foes. At New Hampshire on Friday the high-flying Minutemen were faced with having to play on the sizable playing surface of the Whittemore Center that was soft and slushy due to a power outage earlier in the day. The next night they travelled to Merrimack’s Lawler Arena where they competed on one of college hockey’s smallest ice sheets against one of the best defensive teams in the country. They were able to do well enough against both of the unique challenges to come away with two hard fought ties and gain two more valuable road points for the Hockey East standings. Going back to last weekend’s game against Vermont, UMass has now gotten ties in each of their last three games, all on the road.
The poor conditions at UNH were a detriment to both UMass and UNH, with both teams among the better offensive teams in the country. However it took the Minutemen a little longer to adjust to the soft ice as they were only able to generate 8 total shots through the first two periods. UNH on the other hand accumulated 22 shots through that same time period, but going into the third period the Minutemen were only behind 2-1. UNH opened the scoring halfway through the first, but Kurt Keats would grab his second goal of the season early in the second when he found a loose puck and put it past Wildcat goaltender Danny Tirone. UNH regained the lead a few minutes later and they kept the one goal lead until midway through the third. Of course it would be Shane Walsh, on a Friday night, tying up the game 2-2 late while attacking the net. UMass would control play for most of the time following the goal, with Nic Renyard only having to make two saves from that point through overtime. But the game would end in a tie and UMass would escape the sloppy Lake Whitt with their second tie over UNH this season by the score of 2-2.
The ice was fine the next night at Lawler Arena, but the problem is there just isn’t that much of it. The #13 Merrimack Warriors had done a good job of shutting down the UMass offense the week before at the Mullins Center and the smaller home ice would give them a chance to do so even more efficiently on Saturday. Like the night before the Minutemen struggled to generate shots on net, getting just 3 on Warrior goaltender Colin Delia in the first and 8 in the second. The Warrior players did an exceptional job of clogging the area in front of their net and getting a stick and body in every passing lane. However, the UMass defense and Renyard would do an equally good job at stopping the puck.
The Minutemen would get on the board first when Keats scored his second goal in as many games just a couple minutes into the second. Jake Horton would take the original shot from the point into a crowded slot area where Keats ultimately made contact with it before it got through Delia. It appeared that UMass extended the lead to 2-0 when William Lagesson scored on the rush, but the goal was ultimately called back due to contact being made with Delia. That would shift momentum and the Warriors would score shortly after, tying the game 1-1.
The teams would try to break through after that, including trying to take advantage of multiple power play opportunities on both side, but nothing found the back of the net. The game would eventually end in a 1-1 tie with both goaltenders standing out for their play. Delia would end the night with 22 saves while Renyard finished with 30.
These were big games and big results for this young UMass team. They continue to play well on the road and find a way to not leave games empty handed. Two points on the road against New Hampshire and ranked Merrimack is a very productive weekend. What was impressive was how the team won though. At UNH their ability to use their speed and skill was limited due to the ice conditions. But they slogged, literally, through it and stayed in the game until they got another key goal from Shane Walsh. The Wildcats had one of the highest scoring lines in all of college hockey yet UMass, a team coming into the weekend struggling on defense, held UNH to just two goals. Against Merrimack, UMass was able to essentially match the Warriors at their own game. Merrimack had been getting some good scoring contributions from their entire game, but UMass was able to limit their chances through some good goaltending as well as 18 blocked shots.
The Minutemen are now 2-1-3 since getting blown out by Boston College at the beginning of the month in what was probably a pretty good learning lesson for them. The team has not been getting into ruts where they go entire portions of the game with lessened effort and focus, where typically the opponent would score a run of goals. The team is giving a much more consistent effort, especially on defense, during that time and hasn’t had as many defensive mistakes. It also helps to have Renyard in net providing some extremely steady and reliable play. The Minutemen now have 8 points in 8 Hockey East games and are just three short of the 11 points they had all of last season. There will be no league points on the line this coming weekend however, but what will be at stake is chance for some national recognition with a home and home against undefeated Quinnipiac.
Fear The Triangle Player of the Game (Friday) – Shane Walsh
It’s mind bogging what Walsh has been able to accomplish this calendar year. In the 27 games played in 2015 Walsh has 21 goals and 28 points. But what’s really amazing is how many of those goals play a key role in the game. Such was the same on Friday when Walsh scored again, in the third period, to give UMass a chance at the tie. He’s now tied with Jake Walman of Providence and Austin Ortega of Omaha for the national lead in goals. Pretty good for someone who scored exactly 4 in his first two seasons at UMass.
Fear The Triangle Player of the Game (Saturday) – Nic Renyard
I wish I could find a way to give one of my POTG awards to Kurt Keats for his multiple goal weekend, but I have to pick Renyard for Saturday’s game. Lawler is a tough place to play with the cramp dimensions that lead to a lot of bodies in front of the net, not to mention the low ceiling and the close walls beyond the seating area. A number of times it looked like Renyard was having a tough time tracking the puck through all the screens, but he still was solid enough with his positioning that when he did finally see the puck, he was in a good place to make a play on it. The Warriors don’t have a lot of super skill forwards, but they are pretty relentless with their pressure and there were a number of times Renyard had to deal with the Warriors getting extended time in the offensive zone. But he was up to the task, remained focused, and ultimately helped match the hard-nosed Merrimack defense by allowing just one goal.
Mike McMahon has the game story from the Merrimack game for the Mack Report.