One of the biggest challenges Massachusetts hockey coach John Micheletto has had in his first year on the job has been finding consistency in his line combinations. But since the holiday break, Micheletto has found one that has clicked with Michael Pereira, Conor Sheary and Branden Gracel manning the first line.
Friday night was no different, as the trio accounted for four goals and eight points, including two goals and two assists from Pereira, in the Minutemen’s 5-1 win over No. 11 Boston University in front of 7,267 at the Mullins Center.
“Since they’ve been together, it’s been part of the natural maturation of individual components into a three-man unit,” Micheletto said. “Since Christmas time they’ve been fun to watch and fun to coach.”
Pereira, whose big night was highlighted by his two goals in the third period, has started to see the group come together, and considers his line to be one of the fastest in Hockey East, if not one of the fastest in the country.
“We’re starting to gel a bit and everyone brings something to the table. It’s good,” he said.
Gracel got the scoring started for UMass (10-12-2, 7-9-1 Hockey East Association) late in the first period after Pereira found him cutting back door, beating Terriers goalie Sean Maguire to give the Minutemen a 1-0 lead heading into the intermission.
With momentum on its side, UMass continued to press on against BU (13-10-1, 10-7-1 HEA) in the second period.
The Minutemen outshot the Terriers 11-1 in the frame and added to their lead with one minute, 30 seconds remaining when Kevin Czepiel redirected a Mike Busillo shot past Maguire, giving UMass a 2-0 lead heading into the final frame.
“I think the better part of tonight’s game was the conversion that we had of that sort of pressure,” Micheletto said. “I think there have been other times, Providence here at the Mullins Center earlier in the season. There’s been bits and pieces at other spots that don’t come readily to mind, but sometimes we just haven’t been rewarded with goals coming off that sort of pressure.”
UMass continued its offensive assault in the third period with three goals in the first 11 minutes of the frame to put the game out of reach.
Sheary scored his sixth goal of the season 5:16 into the period to give the Minutemen a 3-0 advantage. Pereira then followed him up with back-to-back goals, the first on a turnaround shot that beat Maguire glove side, and then a shorthanded goal just under two minutes later that gave UMass a commanding 5-0 edge.
BU’s Ben Rosen spoiled UMass goaltender Kevin Boyle’s shutout, scoring a shorthanded goal with 4:22 remaining.
Despite losing the shutout, Boyle did record 19 saves on 20 shots in his first appearance in three weeks, earning his eighth win of the season.
“It’s been motivation, since I haven’t been playing, to work real hard during the week in practice just so I could be ready if and when I get the call,” Boyle said.
UMass played strong on the penalty kill Friday night as it killed off all six BU power plays in what was a very physical and chippy game. The two sides combined for 14 penalties and engaged in several dustups and shoving matches in front of the net throughout the game.
With the victory, the Minutemen recorded their fourth win over a ranked opponent this season.
UMass stayed in seventh place in the conference with the victory, but grabbed some much-needed breathing room after Vermont lost to Boston College. The Minutemen are now three points clear of the Catamounts.
UMass will host Northeastern Friday night at the Mullins Center before it heads back on the road for its first meeting of the season against Merrimack on Saturday night.
Patrick Strohecker can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter at @MDC_Strohecker.