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UMass looks to get back on track against Warriors Saturday

With the familiar “fading down the stretch” talk surrounding the Massachusetts hockey team after three consecutive losses, the Minutemen will look to rebound and squash doubt when they host Merrimack on Saturday night at the Mullins Center.

“You rebound by just getting back to the simple things that allowed you to succeed and spend some time on identifying what problem areas that get in the way,” UMass coach Don Cahoon said. “We’ve got one game this week, and we’ve got to dedicate ourselves to take care of that one game for 60 minutes. That’s how we go back to square one and organize.”

In the last two weeks, No. 15 UMass (9-5-0, 5-4-0 Hockey East) had dropped games against then-No. 9 Quinnipiac, then-No. 15 Boston College, and then-No. 8 UMass Lowell. Before the losses, the Minutemen had been undefeated in three previous games against ranked opponents.

The problem for the Minutemen hasn’t been their play, but their loss of focus in one period of each game.

“Clearly, each of the last three games we’ve lost, we’ve played two pretty good periods,” Cahoon said. “The worst of the three periods has been devastating for us in which we were dominated and taken out of our game opportunity.”

In a critical game in the standings, UMass will look to build on its two point lead on their Hockey East rival and gain ground on conference-leader New Hampshire, which leads with a total of 16 points.

The Warriors (7-7-0, 4-5-0 HEA), along with UMass, have had their own problems over the past few weeks, winning one of their last five games.

Cahoon, however, has been impressed with Merrimack this season and doesn’t read too much into its recent struggles.

“I think they’re unquestionably the most improved team in not just our league, but Division I,” Cahoon said. “Mark Dennehy, who was an assistant here, has done a great job recruiting better athletes. They skate well and have some of the top young players in the game. They’ve got really good goaltending, and that gives them the confidence to play with anybody.”

The success the Warriors have experienced so far this season has been a drastic change over past years. The seven wins for Merrimack is only two behind the mark set by the team in 2008-09, in which it went 9-21-4 overall.

In the all-time series with the Warriors, the Minutemen lead with a 32-29-5 record, including 10 straight victories at the Mullins Center. In its last 14 wins, UMass has outscored Merrimack, 63-20, dating back to 2003.

Last season, the Warriors claimed the season series, 2-1, with a pair of wins at Lawler Arena. Merrimack won the first two meetings with scores of 3-1 and 3-2 (overtime), but it was the Minutemen who took the last contest, 6-1, with a high offensive attack.

Though the Minutemen seem to be moving this year in a familiar pattern of past seasons, Cahoon insists that this team is more mature and better-equipped to handle pressure down the stretch.

“Everybody out there is waiting for us to fall on our face. I’ve heard it over and over again, and the kids have heard it over and over again, but I don’t think we feel that way at all,” Cahoon said. “We think we can play through this and have the maturity to deal with it and cope with it.”

Jay Asser can be reached at jasser@student.umass.edu.

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