As the first semester winds to a close, so does the Massachusetts hockey team’s first half schedule. Just like the rest of the UMass community, the Minutemen want to finish strong.
Sunday’s matchup at Maine will be the final game for UMass before Christmas. The Minutemen (3-6-3, 2-3-3 Hockey East) are on a three-game winning streak – their first of the season – and have moved up to eighth place in the conference. The Black Bears (7-3-4, 5-2-2 HEA) are sitting in the middle of the standings at fifth place.
Last year, UMass beat Maine twice from March 5-6th, scoring nine total goals in the sweep at Maine. The Black Bears finished the season tied with the Minutemen with 13 wins in the conference. However, UMass coach Don Cahoon knows how much the Maine players have improved.
“They’re more mature this year than last year,” Cahoon said. “They’ve got some established forwards and a couple of high-profile defensemen.”
The Black Bears returned 91.7 percent of their total offense from last year. 11 of their top 12 scorers returned, including junior forward Gustav Nyquist, a Hobey Baker Hat Trick finalist, a First Team All-American and the lone unanimous selection to the Hockey East First Team. Nyquist led the nation in scoring with 19 goals and 42 assists for 61 points.
Other notable returners include forwards Brian Flynn and Tanner House as well as defenders Will O’Neill and Jeff Dimmen. What’s surprising among these established players is that junior forward Spencer Abbott is leading the team with 11 goals, while his 10 assists are second on the team. Abbott had only nine goals last year which tied him with three other players for fifth-best on the team.
“They’ve got plenty of weapons,” Cahoon said.
After Maine, UMass doesn’t play until Dec. 30 and 31when they travel to Madison to take on No. 16 Wisconsin in a non-conference double-header. The Badgers (8-7-3, 4-6-2 WCHA) were one of the last two teams standing in the NCAA Tournament last year.
“It’s a great and storied program,” Cahoon said. “They lost the National Championship game a year ago. They lost several good players from that team but they recruit as well as anybody in college hockey. They play in a building where there are at least 15,000 people attending and they’re coached by a terrific coach. They’re going to be prepared and they’re going to be talented.”
The Badgers have struggled of late, going 2-5-1 in their last eight games. They were ranked third overall in the preseason rankings and Cahoon thinks it’s only a matter of time before they get back to the level in which they ended last season.
“Nothing surprises me in college hockey,” Cahoon said. “I wouldn’t bet on them finishing one game above .500. I just hope it’s not at our expense.”
Cahoon remembers the last memorable time UMass went up against Wisconsin. It was 11 years ago and Cahoon was in his first year at the helm of the program.
“We played two games, my first two games at UMass 11 years ago,” Cahoon said. “One of the first things I did was to get a team of that magnitude on our schedule my first year.”
The Badgers got the better of the Minutemen during that two-game series, winning 9-6 and 3-0. However, it was a learning process for the 2000 Minutemen who finished 8-22-4.
This year’s meeting could be a great indicator of where the young UMass players are at in their development.
“I think that our team has a good mentality right now for a young group of players, trying to follow through with a mission statement and trying to play up to an identity,” Cahoon said. “We want to be a championship-caliber club. I think we’re moving in the right direction currently. It’s a day-to-day process.”
Afterwards, the New Year brings a slew of Hockey East battles starting on Jan. 7, when Northeastern comes to Amherst. The Huskies (3-8-4, 3-5-3 HEA) are currently in seventh place in Hockey East, one spot above the Minutemen.
UMass hosts New Hampshire the following day, the No. 2 team in the conference. The Minutemen lost one and tied the other during a two-game series against UNH from Nov. 12 -13th of this year.
Lastly, UMass travels to UMass Lowell on Jan 14th for a home-and-home against the River Hawks. UML is last in the conference, having lost to the Minutemen most recently on Dec. 4th by a score of 5-2.
Pete Vasquez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.