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May 7, 2016

UMass hockey looking for repeat from first line

Nicole Evangelista/Daily Collegian

The Massachusetts hockey team has its fair share of question marks heading into the season.

How will Year 2 of the John Micheletto era go?
Who will replace last year’s seniors, especially on the second line?
Will Steve Mastalerz step up and be the No. 1 goalie?
And who will step up on defense and replace Conor Allen?

But there are few questions about who the first line will be.

Seniors Branden Gracel, Conor Sheary and Michael Pereira were all moved to the first line during the 2012-13 season by Micheletto and became an instant offensive force in the Hockey East.

Pereira said that all three players on the first line play at a fast pace and like to “get after it pretty hard,” but that they each bring their own strengths to the equation.

“We all have something that we can bring to the table,” he said. “Sheary has his quick moves and he’s really shifty, I bring a lot of speed and just getting in on the forecheck. Me and Gracel kind of work in tandem to get on loose pucks, and Gracel has a pretty good shot, a knack for the net. It’s some of the higher end players in this league. To be together on a line is good and as you could see, it was working out pretty well at the end of the year last year.”

Statistically, all three players finished last year in the top three for the Minutemen in points, with Gracel in the lead with 14 goals, 20 assists and 34 points. Sheary was right behind him with 27 points and Pereira followed with 26 points.

Another reason why the first line has molded into a strength for the Minutemen is due to the chemistry that all three players have with one another. That chemistry and group bond has gotten even deeper over the course of this offseason as well.

“I’d say it’s definitely grown over especially over the past three weeks,” Pereira said. “We’ve taken off right where we left off. We all like to play a faster game, which is good. So on that point, I guess we’re taking off right where we left off last year and we definitely know each other’s tendencies I guess you can say.”

Sheary and Pereira lived together during their freshman year, and the two of them have gotten to know Gracel as well both on and off the ice, which has also helped out with their chemistry.

“We all definitely talk to each other after, or off the ice I guess you can say,” Pereira said. “But I guess there’s sort of that respect level where we all know that we’re gonna bring it. Basically that’s all that matters.”

And after a strong 2012-13 season and practices for the new season under their belts, a lot is expected of UMass’ first line.

Their coach is hoping they can pick off right where they left off, but is also hoping for some added depth around them to balance out the offense.

“We hope they do more than they did last year,” Micheletto said. “The beauty of having depth I think from their perspective and from ours is it’s a little tougher for teams to neutralize that. Particularly when you’re on the road and you don’t have the last line change and other teams can try to put their defensive line against that unit. They had a lot of obstacles to overcome to achieve what they did last year. We’re hopeful that if we’re able to spread out our offensive productivity it’ll free them up for better productivity.”

Pereira believes that the first line will need to focus on its “job” in order to have an encore, and that means they shouldn’t focus on being the first line. If they stick to the gameplan, he is expecting big things from himself, Sheary and Gracel once again.

“We are gonna get our chances if we play our game and if we’re all playing at a high, fast level,” he said. “So as long as we’re getting our chances, I’m pretty confident that we’re gonna have a couple of goals a night or a weekend. There’s definitely that confidence level there if we’re all playing our game, we’re definitely gonna get our chances.”

Cameron McDonough can be reached at cameronm@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Cam_McDonough.

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