It was never a matter of if Steve Mastalerz would attend the University of Massachusetts. Rather, it was a matter of if he would get an offer to play for its hockey team.
And once he got the official offer to play for the Massachusetts hockey team, it was a relatively easy decision.
The reason why the junior goalie from North Andover was so focused on attending UMass was because it was in his blood. His grandmother raised his father, Jim, 20 minutes away from Amherst and his brother, John, started out the tradition of the Mastalerz family attending UMass when he came to Amherst two years before Steve did.
The idea of playing for the Minutemen also had a comfort level attached to it since he knew one of the assistant coaches, Mike Buckley, whose specific job was to work with the goalies. Mastalerz, at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, had worked with Buckley before and he was a “big influence” on why Mastalerz decided to come to UMass as well.
So in the end, he said, “it was pretty much a simple choice.”
But things have been far from simple ever since Mastalerz got to UMass.
Mastalerz has caught the injury bug over his first two seasons in Amherst. He also had to go through a coaching change when the coach who recruited him, Don Cahoon, left, leaving new head coach John Micheletto in charge. And on top of that, he has been in an intense goalie competition during both of his first two seasons with Kevin Boyle.
But now Boyle is at UMass Lowell and the floor, or ice, is all Mastalerz’s.
But that doesn’t mean that the job will be handed to Mastalerz. He is still focused on going out there and playing well so he can earn that starting job, even if things are a little different than they used to be.
“There’s still competition every day,” he said. “If you play well, you’re probably gonna play and if you don’t there’s always someone else to jump in. There’s a good competition going on so far. We’ve been getting to know each other pretty well. It’s obviously different than last year. I’m more of the vet guy now. So I’m helping them out trying to get to know college hockey, like what it takes to be successful here. But at the same time, I’m still learning too.
“I’ve been through a lot, but I haven’t seen it all.”
Where it all began
The idea of a goalie competition wasn’t a new concept for Mastalerz. In fact, he’s been battling for minutes in goal ever since high school.
Mastalerz attended Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire, where there was another promising young goalie. Martin Ouellette, who now plays for Maine and was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets, also went to Kimball.
The two were in a constant, healthy battle for playing time.
“We had a good relationship, some good battles,” Mastalerz said. “I played more my sophomore year, he played more the junior year. He ended up accelerating to Maine and I got the opportunity to play every game my senior year. I had a good season and I got the opportunity to come to UMass right away out of high school.”
And he didn’t disappoint when he got the chance to be the full-time starter as a senior. Mastalerz led his team to a 24-7-4 record while posting a 1.81 goals against average and a .931 save percentage.
There was also an added UMass angle during his time at Kimball. His coach, Ryan Miller, is now one of the new assistants under Micheletto for the Minutemen. He was the coach that brought both Mastalerz and Ouellette in, and now he is reunited with Mastalerz once again.
‘Ups and downs’ at UMass
The highs couldn’t get much higher for Mastalerz than they did in his freshman season.
He got to play in 13 games, 10 of which were starts, and while his numbers weren’t flashy – 4-6-1 record,.889 save percentage and a 3.37 goals against average – he did come away with some marquee wins under his belt.
One of the Minutemen’s biggest wins of the season, a 4-0 win over Boston College on Jan. 13, 2011, came with Mastalerz in net. It came as a surprise at the time with Boyle getting the majority of the playing time and Jeff Teglia coming off of a win against Vermont at Fenway Park.
But Cahoon went with Mastalerz, which produced a very memorable experience for the freshman at the time.
“I had my ups and downs. Shutting out BC my freshman year was definitely the highlight of that year,” he said.
And as time has gone by at UMass, Mastalerz feels as if he is still growing as a player ever since that shutout win and still has things to learn.
“I feel like I’ve grown as a player mentally and physically on the ice,” he said. “I think it’s going pretty well. There’s a lot to learn still.”
There weren’t too many other highlights for the Minutemen that season as they finished with a 13-18-5 record and just snuck into the Hockey East playoffs. Then, during the offseason, Cahoon left the program and a new face, Micheletto, was hired.
This transition might have been hard on the offense and defensive players, but Mastalerz said that the transition didn’t affect him as a goalie.
“For a goalie it was pretty smooth,” he said. “A lot of the systems coach has, that’s more for the forwards and defensemen. So from a goalie’s standpoint, me and Kevin were coming back and Jeff Teglia, so we all knew each other, there was no new faces. So from a goalie standpoint it was pretty smooth and we had a pretty easy transition.”
While the transition may have been easy for Mastalerz, the season didn’t start off that way. He suffered a knee injury in his first game of the season against none other than BC. The opponent that provided the most jubilant moment of his freshman season was also the team that he suffered an injury against, which put him out of commission for most of the first half of the season.
He tried to play through the injury for two more games, but it was too much to handle.
Mastalerz would take a week or so off to just rest and put some ice on his injury. He then started a rehab stint, ultimately leading to his return to the bench for the Ledyard National Bank Classic and to the ice on Jan. 12, 2013, during a 2-0 loss at Providence.
“So after the first week or so of rest. … I started building my strength back up,” he said. “And for a goalie it’s probably harder to come back due to the flexibility we get into. So it took a bit longer than I had hoped, but I came back and for the Christmas tournament was when I was first back on the ice.”
The rehab process was a tough one, but he ultimately worked his way through it.
“But I’ve been through that before,” he said. “It’s tough mentally, but you’ve just gotta stay positive, do your rehab and get back out there as healthy and as quickly as you can. I came back out and I feel like I had a good second half and ended the season well.”
And once he got back, he saw an ample amount of playing time, finishing with a 4-8-1 record, but with an improved 2.96 goals against average and .898 save percentage in comparison to his freshman year.
Although the season ended in disappointment, as the Minutemen didn’t qualify for the Hockey East Tournament, the team did go out with a bang with a 3-0 shutout of Merrimack with none other than Mastalerz in net.
“The shutout was definitely a good way to go into the summer,” he said. “It was a letdown overall from the whole team’s standpoint and it’s something to grow off of and hopefully we can do better this year.”
Time for 2013
Without Boyle or Teglia in the picture at UMass, Mastalerz is the only returning goalie with game experience for the Minutemen.
In order to prepare for his junior year, Mastalerz spent time with Buckley, his old coach, who is now with the Pittsburgh Penguins as the goalie development coach. Buckley had NHL players fire pucks at Mastalerz in order to get him ready for the Hockey East grind.
But while that was important to his overall growth, he was most happy to remain injury free over the summer after his injury issues in the past.
“I trained off the ice four times a week with my trainer at home,” he said. “So it was a very productive offseason and the biggest thing for me was staying injury free. The last two seasons I started out catching up. So this year I’m gonna try to stay healthy as long as I can.”
Micheletto acknowledged that Mastalerz has the added benefit of experience heading into this year, but that doesn’t mean he still didn’t have things to improve upon before the new season.
“The one thing we talked about with Steve is he put a little run together at the end of last year, but the thing I wanted him to work on was appreciating how big he is,” Micheletto said. “He doesn’t have to work as hard actively making saves. The net is so big, you’re so big. When you’re in the right position you let pucks hit you and control the rebound you don’t need to make spectacular saves.
“The nice thing for Steve is in scramble situations his athleticism is good enough where he can handle those saves, but I think he calmed his game down a lot. I know that’s one thing he worked on over the summer and that’s been the most noticeable difference in his game. He lets pucks hit him, controls the rebound, he’s not in a scrambling mode all the time like you’d see from him last year.”
And now that he is the only returning goalie with that experience factor, the man who is playing at the school where he always wanted to be is geared up and ready to go in 2013.
Cameron McDonough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Cam_McDonough.