Tied 2-2 heading into the third period, the Massachusetts hockey team faced arguably its most important period of hockey this season.
The Minutemen (11-17-2, 8-14-1 Hockey East Association) responded, scoring three goals in the final 20 minutes to down Maine 5-2 Saturday night at the Mullins Center.
The win puts the Minutemen back in front of the Black Bears (9-17-6, 5-12-6 HEA) by one point for eighth place in the Hockey East standings.
“I’m happy for the guys,” UMass coach John Micheletto said. “We kind of found our way again. They’re fun to watch, fun to be around and I was obviously just excited for them to see them get back to doing what they like to do, are good at doing and makes us successful.”
Not even three minutes into the period, UMass pulled ahead after Zack LaRue took advantage of a loose puck in the crease, poking it by goaltender Martin Ouellette to put the Minutemen back on top 3-2. Then, with just over six minutes to go, junior defenseman Joel Hanley faked a shot from the point and moved to the top of the circles and fed Conor Sheary a cross-ice pass that Sheary one-timed to give UMass a 4-2 lead.
Kevin Czepiel sealed the deal by adding an empty-net goal to earn the Minutemen the 5-2 victory, moving them back ahead of the Black Bears. Czepiel the team had learned its lesson and knew what it was up against after falling out of playoff position with a 2-0 loss on Friday.
“(It) was definitely a wake up call,”Czepiel said. “We knew the situation, so there was no hiding from that. It was definitely one that we had to get this game. It was a must-win and we had to turn around what we were doing. We weren’t playing the way we were supposed to play, so it was kind of just getting back to that and taking accountability for it.”
The Minutemen were stonewalled by Ouellette’s dominant, 30-save shutout performance Friday night.
It didn’t take UMass long to solve Ouellette on Saturday, however. Adam Phillips got the scoring started for the Minutemen 5:51 into the game after he banged home the rebound off a shot from Rocco Carzo to put the Minutemen on top 1-0. Not even two minutes later, Branden Gracel ripped a slap shot over Ouellette’s shoulder, putting the Minutemen ahead 2-0 heading into the first intermission.
The quick start for UMass was something that Micheletto preached to his team before the game.
“We talked about the very basic things that make us good,” Micheletto said. “There’s foundation pieces to what we do and who we are. It’s about competition. It’s about intensity and tenacity and pace and those were the only things that they were being held accountable to at this point and that’s all we wanted to do was get back to those foundation pieces.”
But in the second period, UMass came out flat-footed, surrendering two goals in a span of 1 minute, 40 seconds. Jake Rutt got Maine on the board on the power play when he beat Mastalerz blocker side. Bill Norman then answered Rutt’s goal by beating Mastalerz glove side to tie the game at 2-2 going into the second intermission.
It was then that the Minutemen got it together and figuratively saved its season.
We had to stick together, and I felt like we did a good job in between periods,”Hanley said.“We had to win it, and I thought we did a good job just not getting too high or too low, just staying with our game plan and it ended up working out for us.”
Both teams have only four games remaining in their seasons, but all four of UMass’games come against ranked opponents, starting with a weekend series on the road against No. 5 New Hampshire.
Patrick Strohecker can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter at @MDC_Strohecker.