Massachusetts hockey coach John Micheletto had no plans of making Tuesday’s game against Vermont a sentimental one just because he was going up against his former team.
Micheletto instead had more important things to worry about, such as how his team would respond coming off arguably its worst outing of the season in an 8-2 loss to UMass Lowell on Sunday.
His team responded well, controlling the game from start to finish as the Minutemen (4-5-1, 3-5-1 Hockey East Association) came away with a 3-1 win over the Catamounts (2-5-2, 2-5-2 HEA) in front of 2,336 at the Mullins Center on Tuesday night.
“I gave our guys a lot of credit,” Micheletto said. “We were patient, we took advantage of the opportunities when they came to us and we pushed the pace as best we could whether it be in the man-down or the 5-on-5. I thought it was a real good response by our guys against a very difficult opponent.”
Branden Gracel led UMass in the scoring department with two goals, including his team-high fifth of the season 14 minutes, 55 seconds into the third period to put the game away.
“It was huge, we needed that, we needed to bounce back,” Gracel said. “It was a big Hockey East win for us. The league is so tight that you need to be able to bounce right back after a loss like (Sunday’s). You can’t look back on the loss, you just gotta look forward.”
Just two nights after 10 goals were scored in a game, including eight allowed by the Minutemen, this one was all about the goaltending.
Sophomore Kevin Boyle put together yet another strong performance in net, making 24 saves on 25 shots faced, while his counterpart Brody Hoffman made 28 saves while facing 31 UMass shots.
Both goaltenders made an array of big saves, but it was the Minutemen’s effort on defense that put together the game-saving performance.
Leading 2-1 with UVM on a power play 5:53 into the third period, Joel Hanley was sent to the box for elbowing to give the Catamounts a 5-on-3 advantage for 1:34. However, UVM could not capitalize as UMass’ penalty-killing unit continued its strong play, blocking numerous shot attempts and forcing Boyle to make only one save in the sequence.
“Five-on-3’s can be a huge momentum swing for either team,” Boyle said. “Fortunately, our ‘D’ and our forwards did a great job of blocking shots and I didn’t have to make too many saves, and not many shots got through, cleared some pucks and got it done.”
Micheletto saw it as the turning point in the game.
“That’s a big momentum swing whether it’s in the first 10 minutes or the last 20,” he said. “I thought our guys did a real nice job of the stick placement later in the 5-on-3 as (Vermont) got some player movement through the box, some shifting and rotations. I thought our communication was really good in sorting those things out.”
That success set up Gracel for the backbreaker off a slick, cross-ice pass from Michael Pereira to leave him with a wide open net to bang home the puck.
Coming off a game where the Minutemen fell behind as far as 6-0, it was crucial for them to get off to a fast start against the Catamounts Tuesday night.
That’s exactly what they did.
UMass came out of the gates fast, putting pressure on the UVM defense by pushing the puck up ice with a majority of the chances being created with Conor Sheary leading the rush.
The junior forward was finally rewarded for his efforts 5:51 into the first period when he drove the puck up ice and ran into a wall in front of Hoffman. However, he found Conor Allen behind him to his right and the junior defenseman took care of the rest, firing home his third goal of the season on a slap shot, his second tally in the last three games.
While Boyle was effective throughout the game, he had trouble securing pucks early on, allowing the Catamounts for some nice rebound opportunities in front of the net. They made Boyle pay for that at the 11:20 mark when Anthony DeCenzo scored on a rebound following a shot by Anthony Franzon.
But UVM wasn’t the only one capitalizing on its opponents mistakes as Gracel gave the Minutemen the 2-1 lead three minutes, 57 seconds into the second period, scoring an unassisted goal off a turnover.
“I was coming in a little late, trying to make a play and I found a nice pass from their team right on my stick,” he said. “I kind of faked a slap shot and I thought somebody may have been coming in from behind so I brought my stick down and just did a little snapper and caught the goalie blocker-side high.”
For the first time this season, UMass failed to score a power play goal, ending a streak of nine games after going 0-for-4 on the man advantage Tuesday night.
The Minutemen did have their share of chances to keep the streak alive on the second power play opportunity after the puck slid by the crease in two different sequences. However, the Catamounts’ defense bailed out Hoffman after his crease was left wide open and Sheary tried to feed Allen in front of the net until a pair of sticks were there to knock the puck away.
UMass returns to practice Wednesday before having Thursday off for Thanksgiving. The Minutemen will then prepare for their next game against Quinnipiac, which will take place Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Mullins Center.
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.