After playing to its first winning record in the month of January in three years, the Massachusetts hockey team finds itself in a prime position in the Hockey East standings heading down the stretch of the season for the first time in recent memory.
Tonight, the No. 15 Minutemen (16-10-0, 11-8-0 HEA) can improve that positioning when they host Boston College at the Mullins Center at 7:30 p.m.
With both teams currently tied for second place in the conference with 22 points – but with No. 15 BC leading the season series 1-0 – a victory would propel either team into sole possession of second place, keeping up with first-place New Hampshire (27 points). With eight games left in the regular season for UMass and nine for the Eagles (14-8-2, 10-6-2 HEA), including Friday’s contest, those two points mean more now than ever.
“I think we’re at the point in the season where the season is so short right now that every game is huge and the BC game is big because there is so much public interest,” UMass coach Don Cahoon said. “But we have to narrow our focus to deal with the execution and follow through with good play.”
While the future looks brighter for this year’s squad, Cahoon has stressed a narrowing of the Minutemen’s focus. Cahoon knows the high expectations UMass now has doesn’t guarantee it will reach them.
“I think we’re trying to focus on the path to success and not the destination,” Cahoon said. “That will take care of itself. Let’s deal with the everyday essence of training and practicing and do a good job with that and the net result might be better.”
Despite BC playing one less game than UMass to this point, the Minutemen may still be favored to finish ahead of the Eagles because of the remaining schedules of the two schools. A win tonight would give even more assurance.
Remaining on UMass’ schedule after Friday’s contest are consecutive home-and-homes with Northeastern followed by Merrimack, currently two of the worst teams in the conference, ahead of only Providence. In the final two weeks of the regular season the Minutemen will head to BC for the final game of the season series and then finish with two games at No. 16 Maine.
The Eagles will have to overcome a home-and-home with No. 18 UMass Lowell and end the season with another against No. 13 New Hampshire. Even the Wildcats will face tough competition as they try to lock up the No. 1 seed in the Hockey East Tournament with two games at No. 17 Vermont as well as their two with the Eagles.
While grabbing a higher seed is something important to teams, it is even more so for UMass. If the Hockey East Tournament were to start today, the Minutemen would have the No. 3 seed because of their loss to BC, setting them up with a first-round match with Boston University, a team who has taken 2-of-3 from UMass this year and scored 13 goals in the two wins.
On the other hand, if UMass is able to grab the No. 2 seed, and the rest of the standings stayed the same, it would set up a matchup with Vermont, a team UMass took 2-of-3 from.
With a win tonight, the Minutemen will have a better hold on that No. 2 seed, but will have to show more consistency by stringing wins together. With games in the coming weeks against the bottom half of the conference, UMass has the opportunity to do so, but playing consistent in the Hockey East is no easy task because of the strength of the conference.
“I think it is the nature of the competition more than anything else and no question those games that we let slip by we could play better in those particular games, but I think it is the nature of the competition,” Cahoon said.
Tonight’s game will be aired on NESN and will be “Operation 8K Part II,” as UMass hopes to fill the stands for the televised contest.
Jeffrey R. Larnard can be reached at email@example.com.