Massachusetts hockey forward Michael Pereira made perfectly clear the importance of his team’s next three games.
“This is what separates the men from the boys,” he said.
The Minutemen (3-4, 2-4 Hockey East Association) will have that opportunity to separate themselves when they play three games in the next five days against the three teams at the bottom of the Hockey East standings.
Thanks to a slow start in conference play, UMass also finds itself sitting near the bottom of the conference standings, tied for seventh with Vermont, whom the Minutemen host Tuesday, at four points apiece.
But the Minutemen want to prove that they don’t belong in the Hockey East cellar, and hope that a weekend when they travel to last-place Maine (two points) Friday and host ninth-place UMass Lowell (three points) Sunday night before hosting the Catamounts Tuesday, will give some clarity on the state of the team.
“Are we gonna be a subpar team, or are we gonna be a great team?” Pereira said. “I think we’re a great team.”
The Minutemen have shown signs of greatness as of late, winning two of their last three games with triumphs over New Hampshire (No. 2 in Hockey East) and Providence, and is playing arguably its best hockey of the young season, outscoring opponents, 8-4, in the last three games.
It’s not as if UMass has been incapable of hanging around with the Hockey Eat elite either. The Minutemen’s four losses in the conference have come against defending national champion Boston College twice, as well as a pair of defeats against Boston University, who are currently first and third in Hockey East, respectively. The Minutemen twice blew a third period lead against the Eagles in defeat and gave up a two-goal advantage in the second period against the Terriers on Oct. 27.
But UMass’ sub-.500 record in conference play does speak for itself, leaving some uncertainty of where this team really belongs. However, Pereira believes that this set of games can not only help separate the Minutemen from the bottom of the Hockey East standings, but push them towards their goal of being in the same conversation as the top teams in the conference.
“BC and BU have recognized themselves as the top two teams in our league,” he said. “It’s one of those things where we want to be considered one of those teams too. To really focus on getting (points) this weekend is what our team’s doing.”
If there was any point in the season thus far that the Minutemen could put themselves in the consideration of the Hockey East’s elite, it would be now, especially against a set of teams that have struggled in the early going.
What has helped the Minutemen in these last three games is that their best players have finally been playing like the best players on the team.
Sophomore goaltender Kevin Boyle has been at the top of his game, allowing just four goals in his last three starts, including his first collegiate shutout against the Friars last Friday in a 4-0 win at the Mullins Center. Meanwhile, Pereira and fellow junior forward Conor Sheary have finally broken out of their early season scoreless slumps.
UMass coach John Micheletto, on the other hand, believes the team’s consistency hasn’t just been a recent thing, but a season-long accomplishment.
“There have been instances where we haven’t been as good as we’d like to be and we’ve played against some teams that have been able to take advantage of those greater than other teams,” he said. “I view our effort (against Providence) to be relatively consistent to the way that we’ve played on other times.”
And with a critical stretch looming for the Minutemen, Micheletto has his team prepared to approach the next three games the same way it has the first seven.
“I would like to feel like every game is an opportunity to pick up some wins,” Micheletto said. “I don’t think we’re looking at anybody any differently just based on where they are in the standings because we’re looking at our own situation feeling like we’re a much better team than maybe our record shows, so it wouldn’t be very smart of us knowing that to look at anyone else any differently either.”
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.