Massachusetts hockey coach John Micheletto is well aware of the importance of this weekend’s road trip to Vermont, and expressed that through his description of his team’s approach in practice.
“Workmanlike, I guess, would be the approach the guys have taken this week,” Micheletto said. “We know that we’re going to have to focus on different things in order to be successful. We had a good workout on Saturday and came ready to practice on Monday.”
After defeating No. 2 Boston College on the road last Friday, the Minutemen (8-11-2, 5-8-1 Hockey East Association) sit in seventh place in the Hockey East standings, one point ahead of the Catamounts.
UMass finds itself with little breathing room in the ever-competitive Hockey East, but the team could give themselves a little wiggle room if they have some success this weekend.
With a two-game weekend series in Burlington, Vt., the Minutemen have an opportunity to separate themselves from the bottom of the pack, or, if things go south, will find themselves outside of the playoff picture.
“I think the guys are excited about the two points (at BC), but it’s only two and we need to keep accumulating those at this point,” Micheletto said.
In last weekend’s upset, UMass was fueled by its top line of Michael Pereira, Branden Gracel and Conor Sheary, accumulating six points in the game. The chemistry between the three players has been there since the end of the New Year, when the Minutemen won the Ledyard National Bank Classic championship, with Gracel being named tournament Most Valuable Player.
“Their play has been very strong. They’ve kind of fed off each other,” Micheletto said. “Branden certainly has gotten some of the notoriety and accolades to go along with it, but, it is the three of them that are creating the offense and opportunities and Branden happens to be the beneficiary of them more often than the other two guys, but it could just as well be any of them.”
Since the tournament, the trio has combined for seven goals and 12 assists in five games, helping the team to a 3-2 record.
“Me, (Gracel) and (Pereira) have been playing pretty well together,” Sheary said. “It took us a few games to get into it, but once we started getting it going … we’ve been playing well and putting up points for us.”
With only 13 games – all in-conference – remaining on the regular season schedule, the trio recognizes the importance of building off its recent success.
“Everyone knows that we only have the league games left, but every two points or every four points every weekend are important,” Sheary said. “We can’t let any games slip away from us. So we got a big two points at BC last weekend that helped us get some momentum heading into Vermont this weekend.”
The Minutemen have prior knowledge of the Catamounts (6-12-4, 3-8-4 HEA) from when they defeated Vermont 3-1 earlier in the season behind Gracel’s first career two-goal game.
However, Micheletto is well aware that a meeting in November has no bearing on what will happen in January.
“We certainly reflect back on the game just to remember what kind of style of play it is,” he said. “I think it will be a very different game than what we saw at Conte (Forum). It’s going to be a little bit tighter, not going to be as many rush opportunities and back and forth, so our rush defense is still going to have to be good, but not as important a part of the game as our in-zone defense.”
This weekend will also serve as a bit of a homecoming for Micheletto, who spent the previous nine years as an associate head coach behind the Vermont bench before taking over at UMass.
“Thursday and Friday morning will be good to see people around the rink and University that I haven’t had the opportunity to stay in touch with since coming down here,” Micheletto said. “But again, come puck drop, it will be all about trying to chase two points at that point. The sentimentality meter is pretty low at that point.”
The weekend series caps off a four-game road trip for the Minutemen, with Friday and Saturday scheduled for 7:05 p.m. puck drops at Gutterson Fieldhouse.
Patrick Strohecker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @MDC_Strohecker.