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November 30, 2016

UMass hockey looks to improve on last season

Massachusetts hockey coach Don Cahoon sees his team like any other coach does before the season starts: undefeated and full of potential. But for Cahoon and the Mass Attack, potential will not be enough to improve on a 16-20-3 record from a year ago and a rigorous conference schedule.

The Minutemen, who ranked seventh in the Hockey East Preseason Coaches Poll, bring back 21 letterwinners and six of their top 10 scorers for last year. More importantly though, UMass retains many of the team’s core players.

“We have several really good returning veterans in each key position,” Cahoon said. “We have a group of kids, many of whom are of real good character and good personality and we think we’ve complimented them with a good group of young players to fill in the gaps.”

The veteran presence will be huge for the Minutemen this season. However, that is a luxury that UMass has in bulk, with forward Brett Watson and defenseman Justin Braun coming back as captains with senior defenseman Martin Nolet and junior forward James Marcou bringing vital experience.

“We think that the biggest strength of this team is the character of the team and the leadership that we have in that locker room,” Cahoon said.

Cahoon had particular praise for the leadership capabilities of his two returning captains.

“Brett Watson is the pure leader of this team and has been for two years and he’ll continue to be the captain,” Cahoon said. “Justin Braun has been maybe the most valuable player on this team for a couple of years now because of his position and the amount of ice time he gets and the situations we put him in.”

While the Minutemen will rely on Braun and Watson to act as the foundation for the team, Marcou remains the offensive star. After tying for the conference lead in points last season with 47, the All-American winger will be the spark for the UMass top scoring line along with sophomores Casey Wellman and T.J. Syner.

Like the team’s other leaders, Marcou’s impact goes beyond his numbers and into his work ethic and example for the rest of the team.

“What we’ll see most with James is that the young kids will see how hard he works at his game,” Cahoon said. “Yes he has gifts and skills, but for the most part, it devolves from hard work and due diligence.”

Maturity will be an important factor for the Minutemen, as they are currently looking at some of the best teams in the country at the top of the conference rankings. Defending champion Boston University is currently ranked at the top of Hockey East and No. 2 in the nation. Also nationally ranked are Hockey East foes No. 11 UMass Lowell, No. 12 Boston College, No. 14 Vermont, No. 16 New Hampshire and No. 20 Northeastern.

“Everyone’s grown accustomed to this league being an unbelievable league,” Cahoon said of the high level of play present in the conference year after year.

“On paper, there is as close a league that has ever been put together,” he said. “What does that mean? It means a lot of anguish for the coaches because every night, the team that’s most ready and most prepared is always going to succeed.”

With its strong veteran presence, the tough conference could play right into UMass’ favor. The team’s experience in prior Hockey East play could be the difference between the Minutemen cracking into the national rankings or falling out of the conference race.

“We’re just going to have a real presence in that locker room of guys that understand exactly what it takes to succeed at this level,” Cahoon said.

UMass will find out how it matches up against the rest of the conference when it faces BU during its second week. The game against the Terriers is in the midst of stretch where the Minutemen play seven out of nine games at home to start the season.

When UMass finally takes the ice Thursday against Renssalaer, it will begin its efforts to improve upon last season. The Minutemen finished the season seventh in the conference and in the middle of the pack in most other areas. The Minutemen will have to improve on their performance within the conference if they want to have their first winning season since 2006-07 after being ranked seventh in scoring and sixth defensively.        

Cahoon, though, had little concern over past seasons. Now entering his 10th season, the coach is more concern about creating history for his team today.

“Remember, both teams are stepping on the ice undefeated,” Cahoon said. “The first games, you can have the greatest disparities in the level of play. When you look at the two teams at the end of the year, there could be a great disparity between the two and no one’s going to know that the first night.”

Nick O’Malley can be reached at nomalley@student.umass.edu.

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