The Massachusetts hockey team played their final game of 2015 on Friday night in an exhibition game against the US Junior National Team, falling by a score of 4-0. The game was the conclusion of Team USA’s evaluation camp ahead of their trip to Finland to compete in the World Junior Championships. I think there are positives and concerns to take away from the exhibition loss and probably highlights the team’s most glaring area of improvement heading into the second half; offense.
I wasn’t able to attend the game and only listened to a part of it so I don’t have too many first-hand observations, but personally I’m encouraged by how the team did defensively. Granted the US team was missing its two bet players, Auston Matthews and Alex DeCommit DeBrincat, but the Minutemen were missing some key players as well. William Lagesson is in Sweden preparing to represent his country in the upcoming Junior Championships, Marc Hetnik is out with an injury, and Nic Renyard did not dress due to illness. Even some of the players who did suit up for UMass were banged up. As a result of those issues the UMass lineup consisted of third-string goaltender Alex Wakaluk playing the entire game, Brennan Baxandall dressed for just his second game, and Maddison Smiley moved back to defense from forward for the game.
Despite all that, the team did pretty well defensively, with Wakaluk getting high marks for his performance in net. He ended up stopping 29 of 33 shots against some of the most talented young forwards in the country. The makeshift defense in front of him blocked 13 shots during the night. On a normal night giving up four goals wouldn’t be seen as a huge positive, but considering last year Team USA put up 5 goals during an exhibition against Boston University, the job done by Wakaluk and the team in front of him is commendable. The penalty kill even continued their strong play, nullifying both of Team USA’s chances during the game.
One interesting note is that Sonny Milano was the star of the night for the US squad, scoring two goals and adding an assist. Maybe it’s to UMass’ benefit that the forward ended up heading to major junior last season instead of playing at Boston College as originally planned.
In looking at the box score the concern coming out of Friday’s’ game is that UMass’ lack of offense continuing. The Minutemen managed just 14 shots on goal during the game, including just 2 in the 2nd period. For the game itself Team USA attempted 73 total shots to 25 for UMass. That is a tremendous disparity in possession, even when you account for the difference in talent between the squads. Dominic Trento and Jake Horton are the only Minutemen who had multiple shots on goal during the game. UMass’ top two lines combined for just three shots on goal during the game, which is frightening. It seems pretty obvious that recapturing the scoring that we saw from the team early on in the season is priority #1 when the team returns from spending Christmas with their families.
Here is the recap and box score from UMass Athletics.
While the current Minutemen were taking on the US Junior team in Amherst two former Minutemen were in the NHL spotlight in Pittsburgh where the Bruins and Penguins played. Sheary, playing in his second NHL game, got his first goal off a nice feed from linemate Sidney Crosby (let that sink in, Conor Sheary is playing on a line with Sidney Crosby) in the first period. The goal was answered almost immediately by the Bruins’ Frank Vatrano. Vatrano would go on to score two more goals to finish off his first NHL hat trick and give the Bruins a 6-2 win.
Needless to say the four goals by Minutemen gave the UMass hockey program quite a bit of attention on the broadcast and social media that night.