The story of the Massachusetts hockey team’s season has been its inability to hold on to leads late in games. So far this year, the Minutemen have allowed teams to rally from early deficits seven times and have come away with wins on only two of those occasions.
But at Gutterson Fieldhouse on Saturday, it was UMass that was forced to play catch-up.
The Minutemen dug themselves into a 3-0 hole midway through the second period that they couldn’t find their way out of, as Vermont staved off the UMass rally and prevailed 3-2 in front of 3,845 people to split the weekend series in Burlington, Vt.
Goaltender Steve Mastalerz got his fourth straight start for the Minutemen (9-12-2, 6-9-1 Hockey East Association) and made 22 saves, but couldn’t match the efforts of his counterpart Brody Hoffman, who made 36 stops in the win.
The Catamounts (7-13-4, 4-9-4 HEA) took a 3-0 advantage with 14 minutes, 39 seconds in the second period on a power play goal by Jacob Fallon, snapping a streak of 16 successful penalty kills for UMass.
“They were good, as is always going to be the case when you’ve dropped a number of games at home. Your pride’s been wounded and they obviously were fired up,” UMass coach John Micheletto said of Vermont.. “We were anticipating that they were going to throw the kitchen sink at us and they did.”
Michael Pereira kept the Minutemen within reach in the closing minutes of the period, scoring a 4-on-4 goal assisted by Joel Hanley and Conor Allen to make it 3-1 Vermont in the second intermission.
UMass was the aggressor in the third period, outshooting the Catamounts 11-4. The Minutemen had three power play opportunities in the third period as well, but had nothing to show for it, coming up empty in all each one.
Down 3-1 in the game’s final minutes, Mastalerz was pulled for an extra-attacker. The move was a success as Branden Gracel hammered home a rebound off a shot by Darren Rowe to make it 3-2 with 1:21 to go.
However, it was too little, too late for UMass as Vermont held on and prevented any chance for a Minutemen sweep.
“We talked about what it takes in order to do that, and how much energy you need to manufacture on night two when you’ve won in someone else’s barn on night one,” Micheletto said. “You’ve got to fend off the crowd, you’ve got to fend off their juice, and they did a good job and got goaltending when they needed it.”
The Catamounts got the early lead on a goal by Kyle Reynolds three minutes, 23 seconds into the game, and stretched the advantage to 2-0 when he scored again at the 9:38 mark.
Minutemen overcome UVM
Just one week after allowing a 2-0 lead to become a 2-2 tie against No. 2 Boston College in an eventual 5-2 victory, the Minutemen found themselves in the same situation again Friday at Vermont and once again came away victorious, 3-2.
With the 2-0 advantage long gone heading into second intermission, UMass used the outcome at BC as a reminder that the game could still be won.
“You remind them of those touchstone moments from the season and don’t allow teams to shake you from what you do,” Micheletto said. “We talked a lot about last week. Experience is a great motivator and it’s a great sense of strength.”
Conor Sheary scored the game-winner five minutes, 32 seconds into the final period as his wrister found its way through traffic and into the back of the net.
“To be honest, I was almost going for a rebound,” Sheary said after the game. “I was just trying to get it to the net.”
The Catamounts earned a 6-on-4 advantage with 1:24 remaining in the game after bringing out the extra-skater following a Hanley slashing penalty. However, Mastalerz held his ground, finishing the game with 19 saves.
Eric Filiou got his first start since Dec. 11 with Steven Guzzo out of the lineup with a lower body injury and responded by scoring the game’s first goal 19:44 into the first period. It was Filiou’s first of the season.
The Minutemen doubled their lead on a power play goal by Hanley 6:23 into the second period, but UVM got one right back 58 seconds later when Reynolds ripped a wrister past Mastalerz.
The Catamounts then evened the score when Connor Brickely scored on a one-timer from a cross-ice feed from Fallon with 2:24 remaining in the second.
The third period tally by Sheary gave Micheletto a win in his return to Vermont after spending nine seasons there as an assistant.
“The guys have a lot of belief right now. It’s nice when you’re rewarded for that,” Micheletto said. “It just keeps that belief getting stronger.”
UMass has another big test on Friday when it hosts Boston University at 7 p.m. at the Mullins Center.
Nick Canelas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.