The Massachusetts hockey team enters its second to last weekend of regular season play with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over its playoff future.
The Minutemen (11-17-2, 8-14-1 Hockey East Association) find themselves in the final eligible spot to make the Hockey East playoffs – eighth place – with only one point to spare.
After its weekend split with Maine last weekend at the Mullins Center, UMass is currently one point ahead of the Black Bears for the eighth seed with 17 points.
The Minutemen are also only four points clear of Northeastern, which sits in last place, with four games remaining.
Mathematically, UMass could still climb into seventh place and perhaps gain a more favorable matchup in the playoffs.
But in order for the Minutemen to make the playoffs, they will first have to go through No. 5 New Hampshire (17-8-5, 12-7-4 HEA) this weekend with a pair of games on the road.
So, will UMass be focusing on all of this external pressure come Friday and Saturday night?
“You’re gonna watch a scoreboard, you’re gonna look at the standings, those things are inevitable no matter what because we’re all chasing the same prize,” UMass coach John Micheletto said. “I don’t think guys have too much difficulty focusing on the task at hand.
“Everybody knows that we’ve got to win Friday night and then after that we’ll worry about Saturday night.”
But winning this weekend will be no easy task for UMass as it goes up against a nationally ranked Wildcats squad on their home ice.
This will be the first time the two sides have faced each other since Nov. 2, 2012. UMass handed the Wildcats their first loss of the season that night in a 2-1 overtime win at the Mullins Center.
The Wildcats are led defensively by sophomore goalie Casey DeSmith, who is fourth in the conference with a 2.20 goals against average.
“Offensively you’ve got to make sure that you’re getting second shots on this guy,” Micheletto said of DeSmith. “With the way that he’s played over the course of the year, there’s no way to get around it.”
Whittemore Center is also a wider sheet than the Minutemen are used to playing on, which Micheletto said could cause some problems.
“That’s the danger of being on the big ice, is that sometimes you play too much on the perimeter and your shots come from the outside,” Micheletto said. “So we’ve got to make sure that we’re getting bodies in front of (DeSmith), bodies at the net to bang home second shots.”
DeSmith isn’t the only defensive force for the Wildcats entering Friday’s contest as the top scoring defense in Hockey East at 2.30 goals allowed per game. UMass is ninth in that category with 3.07 goals allowed per game.
UNH can also score, as it has averaged 3.20 goals per game, good for second in Hockey East. Some of its offensive leaders include Kevin Goumas (10 goals, 24 assists), Grayson Downing (12 goals, 13 assists), Trevor van Riemsdyk (7 goals, 18 assists) and Austin Block, who leads the team with his 13 goals.
Micheletto said the Wildcats are good at finding players away from the puck on offense and losing opposing defenders as they move towards the net for backdoor opportunities. He added that this makes mistake management important against them, but that they can’t overcompensate at the same time.
“One of the things, historically, as well as this year that they do very well is they make the ice they play on big ice offensively,” Micheletto said. “So we need to make sure we’re defending without getting overspread, but we’re making sure we’re defending at every point on the ice.”
Friday’s game is set to begin at 7:30 p.m., while Saturday’s game is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Both games can be seen on WBIN or Fox College Sports Atlantic on television, or heard on the radio on AM 1400 or 1240 and on FM 96.9.
Cameron McDonough can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Cam_McDonough.