Coming into last weekend’s crucial series against New Hampshire, the Massachusetts hockey team was in need of a role player to step up and be a major contributor in order to find success.
Joel Hanley was that unlikely hero this time around.
The sophomore defenseman scored a goal in each of the two games against the Wildcats (14-16-3, 11-13-2 Hockey East), putting the Minutemen (12-15-5, 8-13-4 HEA) in position to collect some much-needed points.
In Saturday’s 4-2 win at the Mullins Center, it was Hanley who scored the eventual game-winner three minutes, 53 seconds into the second period, burying a wrister past UNH goalie Casey DeSmith just seconds after UMass failed to convert on a power-play opportunity.
Hanley’s strike, his sixth of the season, gave the Minutemen a 3-1 advantage, which was all freshman netminder Steve Mastalerz needed to hang on for the win.
Hanley, a Keswick, Ontario native, also played a major role in Friday’s tilt with the Wildcats, despite a 4-3 letdown. Hanley found the back of the net 4:47 into the third period, as his shot from the left circle evened the score at two apiece.
Hanley’s two goals this weekend raise his point total to 22 on the season, tops among all UMass defensemen, and puts him in a tie with senior captain Danny Hobbs for fourth in points overall.
“I think if you look at the way we’ve used Joel, you can see he has real good skill with the puck,” said UMass coach Don Cahoon. “Those are his gifts. He shoots real well and he’s got good game sense.”
The bulk of Hanley’s production has come of late, with 12 of those 22 points in the last 12 contests.
What should not go unnoticed, however, is Hanley’s play on the defensive side of the ice, where his plus-minus ratio of plus-2 was key in Saturday’s victory. Saturday’s effort also moved Hanley to second on the team in that category, with a plus-10 differential on the season.
“We’ve worked real hard with him, and he’s worked himself to become better defensively,” said Cahoon. “He gets a lot of minutes for it.”
Another critical asset to Hanley’s game has been his discipline. Hanley has not seen the penalty box since Jan. 13 in the Minutemen’s 4-0 win over Boston College, and has registered the second-fewest penalty minutes among defensemen for UMass, behind assistant captain Michael Marcou, who also happens to be his partner on the Minutemen’s top defensive pairing.
The pairing of Hanley and Marcou was especially strong in Saturday’s triumph, as each tallied a goal and combined for a plus-3, making the job much easier for Mastalerz in net.
Arguably Marcou’s biggest play on the defensive side of the ice this weekend came in Friday’s loss, where his sense of urgency in front of the net saved a potential UNH goal.
After a shot by the Wildcats in the first period deflected off the pad of freshman goalie Kevin Boyle, the puck was left waiting in the crease with a wide open net in front of it. Fortunately for UMass, Marcou won the race to the puck and batted it out of the crease, preventing UNH from building its lead.
Heads-up plays like that one are part of the reason Cahoon puts so much trust in his top blue-liners and gives them more minutes than they perhaps should be receiving.
“Those guys probably got about 65 minutes of playing time this weekend,” said Cahoon. “They’re both great athletes, but they’re different types of builds. They get big minutes, but we have to be careful of that, because I don’t know if they can handle all of those minutes. But they’re real good players nonetheless.”
With the Minutemen tied with Northeastern for the final playoff spot in the Hockey East standings heading into the final weekend of the season, they will need the continued efforts of their top defensive pairing in order to find their way into the postseason.
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MDC_Canelas.