Just three weeks ago, the Massachusetts hockey team had its sights set on as high as the fifth seed in the Hockey East playoffs.
Now the Minutemen would be happy just to make it.
On the back of an improbable 30-save performance by Martin Ouelette and a pair of second period goals, Maine handed UMass its fifth consecutive loss with a 2-0 win in front of 4,703 at the Mullins Center Friday night.
The loss puts the Minutemen (10-17-2, 7-14-1 HEA) out of the playoff picture at ninth in the Hockey East standings as the Black Bears (9-16-6, 5-11-6 HEA) take over the eighth and final playoff spot with only five games left in the regular season. UMass has a chance to reclaim that playoff spot when it hosts Maine in a rematch at the Mullins Center Saturday night at 7 p.m.
At this point in the season, it’s safe to say that Saturday’s game is a must-win for the Minutemen. However, UMass coach John Micheletto sees it as equally important as all the missed opportunities the Minutemen have had this season.
“Every game for us is must-win,” Micheletto said. “I want to win every game, so we must win every game. We’d be in a different spot if we had won all the games prior to this one. So they’re all a must-win to me, they should all be a must-win to our guys.”
Micheletto tried to spark his struggling team when he pulled starting goaltender Kevin Boyle in favor of Steve Mastalerz in the second period after Boyle allowed a pair of goals roughly four minutes apart.
While Mastalerz filled in nicely, shutting out the Black Bears the rest of the way, he was no match for his counterpart Ouelette. The junior netminder made a number of big saves to rob the Minutemen of some good scoring opportunities, none bigger than his game-changer early in the second period.
Maine had just killed off a UMass power play to open the second, but the Minutemen once again possessed the puck in the offensive zone. Steven Guzzo began to move towards the net with the puck, drew the defensemen and found K.J. Tiefenwerth with a wide-open net in front of him. The freshman fired it from the slot, but Ouelette dove across his crease and reached out with his glove to rob Tiefenwerth of a goal and keep the game scoreless.
“It’s probably one of those saves where you make it one out of 10 or 20 times,” Ouelette said, “but I made it tonight and I think that was huge and gave us a little momentum.”
UMass had a chance shortly after to get it back, but Michael Pereira’s breakaway chance was denied with the pad by Ouelette.
From there, the Black Bears took over.
A Shane Walsh obstruction-interference penalty put Maine on the power play 13 minutes, 23 seconds into the second period. The Black Bears responded less a minute into the man-advantage as Ben Hutton’s shot from the point beat Boyle glove-side high at 14:14 to break the scoreless struggle.
UMass had yet another chance when Branden Gracel fired a snapshot high from the left wing, but Ouelette deflected the puck up and out of harm’s way.Then at 18:51, Mark Anthoine led a 3-on-1 break and fired a shot from the right wing past Boyle for the 2-0 advantage.
That’s when Micheletto made the switch.
“I was trying to find something to give us an opportunity to win from that point on,” he said.
Ouelette turned away all 10 UMass shots in the third period, including a breakaway opportunity from Conor Sheary, leaving the Minutemen hopeless.
“He was good,” Micheletto said of Ouelette. “Probably put a few into him that we probably shouldn’t have and he made a couple saves that I haven’t seen. We’ve certainly seen some good goaltending performances against us, but that was a good one.”
Micheletto has talked throughout much of the season about the importance of the process, and UMass playing its best hockey come March. But the Minutemen are falling apart at the wrong time, and the first-year UMass coach is running low on solutions.
“The process wasn’t good (Friday) so I think frustration is a waste of energy at this point,” Micheletto said. “We play a certain way, we have a style of play that’s proven to be successful if we stick to it and we didn’t do that (Friday).
“The (buttons) we’ve pressed so far haven’t work, so we’ll continue to do that until we find a way.”
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.