View From Section U ▲ 2015: The Year Of Walsh

Friday marks the last Massachusetts hockey game of 2015 and there is likely no one who will be more sorry to see the year end than Minuteman senior Shane Walsh.  To say the West Roxbury native had a breakthrough performance during the calendar year would be an understatement.  Walsh has not only gone from a grinder, third-winger type to one of UMass main offensive contributors since last January, but he’s now one of the top goal scorers in all of college hockey.  That transformation 12 months ago was nearly instantaneous and simply spectacular to watch, especially since he has a knack to score right when the team needs it most.  As the year comes to a close it’s worth taking another look at Walsh’s amazing exploits.

Coming out of juniors it was unknown just how much Walsh would be counted upon to score goals for UMass.  He definitely showed a knack for finding the net in the EJHL (now the USPHL), scoring 30 goals in 55 total games during two different stints in the league.  But he did not match that level of offense when playing against tougher competition in the USHL, scoring 14 goals in 72 total games in the league.  Keeping track of him from afar I thought that Walsh would be a good two-way player that probably wouldn’t be scoring a ton, but would put a few in the net each season while focusing on defense and puck possession.

Walsh arrived in Amherst as a freshman having to cope with the fact that the coach who recruited him, Toot Cahoon, was no longer at the school and he would instead be playing for John Micheletto in a very different system than the one he was recruited for.  Through his first two years Walsh played regularly and played well, but the goals were few and far between.  In his freshman and sophomore seasons he scored just four goals total over the course of 61 games.  Last season as a junior it looked to be more of the same dependable, but not outwardly offensive play from him.  He scored his first goal of the season in the 5th game of the season, a late extra man goal in a 4-1 loss to Boston College.  He would go eight games without another goal until scoring his second of the season in a wild 7-5 loss to Notre Dame at the Mullins Center.  Afterward Walsh would be kept off the scoreboard for the final four games of 2014.

Then the calendar turned to 2015.  UMass played UConn in just the second day of the new year and Walsh scored the first Minuteman goal of the night in a 4-3 loss.  A week later against Maine Walsh, who at that point had 7 goals on his career, would score two in a 3-2, including the game-winner with under 3 minutes left.  A week later he would do it again, finding the net twice in a 6-4 win over New Hampshire and again scoring the game winner late in the third.  With the heroics against Maine and New Hampshire both coming on Friday games a nickname for Walsh was dubbed, “Mr. Friday Night”.

photo by Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics

Walsh would be held off the board on that Saturday against UNH, but the following Friday at Merrimack Walsh would strike again.  This time it was a third period goal to give UMass a 4-4 tie against the Warriors.  In the just three weeks of 2015 Walsh’s six goals scored matched the entire amount of times he scored for the Minutemen in his previous 2 and a half seasons.  Walsh would close out the best month of his career to that ponit the following Friday with another goal in a loss to Boston University.

When the calendar turned to February Walsh would do something he hadn’t done in 2015.  He scored on a Saturday, a late goal in a big 5-2 win over the Lowell River Hawks on 2/7.  But Mr Friday Night would return to the following week when he chipped in a goal in a 3-3 tie against Lowell.  Walsh would score one last Friday goal in the regular season the next week against Providence.

The Hockey East playoffs started on a Friday night with the Minutemen travelling to face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.  Walsh would not score in regulation but Troy Power would, getting a goal with two seconds left in the game to tie it up and send the game to overtime.  And another overtime.  And another.  And another.  The game eventually became the longest game in NCAA history with goaltenders Steve Mastalerz and Cal Petersen turning away all chances to end it.  In the end it would be Shane Walsh who would win it, a game that started on Friday but ended after midnight in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Walsh would score again that day, putting another goal past Petersen later that night when game 2 of the playoff series was played.  It would end up being his final goal of the season as UMass were eliminated 2-1 by the Irish to end their season.  What Walsh accomplished from January 1st onward was remarkable.  After scoring just 4 goals in his first two years and just two more in the first half of his junior year Walsh scored 12 goals in the team’s final 18 games, nearly one quarter of the team’s scoring during that time.  His 0.67 goals score per game was 11th best in the country during that time.  His 14 goals on the entire season were second best on the team, 4 behind Frank Vatrano, and he led the team in game winning goals.  The big question heading into this season though was whether his newfound scoring prowess was a fluke or whether he could be counted upon as a leading scorer for the Minutemen in 2015-16.

Walsh put that question to rest pretty quickly.  On the first Friday of the new season Walsh would score his first goal of 2015-16 in a 5-2 win at Colorado College.  Shedding the Mr Friday Night moniker however he would score two goals in the third period the following night, including the game-tying goal ahead of an Austin Plevy gamewinner.

Walsh would score three more goals in the month of October in a win over Maine, tie against Maine, and scoring the lone goal in UMass’ 6-1 loss to Yale.  He would add three more goals in November, including a game tying goal in the third period against UNH.  This past weekend Walsh would continue to play well against the Irish, accounting for the only UMass goal each night as the home team swept the Minutemen out in South Bend.

With his 11 goals so far this season Walsh is tied for 4th in the country in goals scored.  He leads the Minutemen in both goals scored and shots on goal and has nearly matched his scoring pace of the 2nd half of last season with 0.65 goals scored per game.  He has amazingly scored 23 goals in the 35 games played during the 2015 calendar year after only scoring 6 in his previous 69.

I have never seen anything like what we’ve witnessed with Walsh this year.  Sure there have been players that have had big increases in scoring, but nothing this dramatic.  Branden Gracel scored just 11 goals in his first two seasons and then had 14 in his junior year and became one of the top offensive threats for the Minutemen.  But that was a gradual build from 4 goals as a freshman to 7 as a sophomore and then 14 as a junior.  And the 14 is nothing like the 12 we saw from Walsh from just January onward in his junior year.  It’s like someone just flipped a switch and suddenly Walsh became a sniper.  And it’s pretty impressive how he does it.  He doesn’t have the hardest shot or a lightning quick release like Vatrano.  He just knows where and, probably more importantly, when to shoot.  His goals always seem instinctive more than anything.

There’s a part of me deep down that is worried when we have to flip the calendar to January again that Walsh’s super powers will pop like so many champagne bottles on New Year’s Eve.  But realistically I don’t think that will happen.  The fluke worry was put to rest with his weekend in Colorado Springs earlier this year and I’m sure the confidence he’s built in the last 12 months will carry him through no matter what the calendar says.  Which is a good thing.  If UMass is going to find success 2016 it will need its star forged in 2015 to get them there.

The Daily Collegian has a story on William Lagesson being named to the Swedish Preliminary World Junior roster.

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