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Canelas: UMass hockey not ready to be among the best

As I exited the press box and took a walk through the Agganis Arena concourse after the second period of the Massachusetts hockey team’s 3-1 loss to No. 19 Boston University on Friday night, I ran into a fellow media member who has covered Hockey East since before I was in high school.

The first thing he said to me: “That was the most UMass period ever.”

What he meant was the Minutemen had just outshot the Terriers 16-12, controlled the pace of play and had a majority of the scoring chances, yet somehow allowed three goals in a six-minute, 30-second span and found themselves down 3-0 entering the third period.

Cade Belisle/Collegian

That was the story of the weekend – and maybe the last two years – for UMass, which came up empty-handed in its first two games after falling to UMass Lowell 5-2 in a non-conference matchup on Saturday at Tsongas Center.

The Minutemen outshot its opponents 69-54 for the weekend and got more than they could ask for from goaltender Steve Mastalerz, who bailed them out when necessary with a combined 54 saves in two games, but the scoreboard will tell you they didn’t even come close to victory.

UMass is winless, but it certainly isn’t due to a lack of effort.

“I like our team,” UMass coach John Micheletto said after Saturday’s loss to UML. “I hate saying that when I’m 0-2, but I like our team. I’d love to tell you, ‘Jeez, we’ve gotta blow things up,’ but we scrap, we create opportunities and we defend pretty well.”

The Minutemen can play as well as they want, but the only thing that matters when the horn sounds is who wins and who loses. And for UMass, it looks like wins may be hard to come by this season.

Annual Hockey East powers such as Boston College, BU and the River Hawks will continue to get the Minutemen’s best in each meeting this season. UMass always plays the top teams in Hockey East well, but often finds a way to lose.

The reason?

Well, through just two games this season the Minutemen have already racked up 57 penalty minutes, have faced three 5-on-3 situations and have two game misconducts, and allowed numerous odd-man rushes off turnovers in the neutral zone.

But the problem isn’t the fact that UMass is making mistakes. That’s going to happen to teams in most hockey games. It’s the fact that the Minutemen can’t afford to make any mistakes in such games.

The talent gap is simply too wide. UMass needs to be perfect in order to beat just about any Hockey East opponent and, unlike over the weekend, needs to capitalize on more of its quality scoring chances.

“I thought it would’ve been nice for us to convert on an early opportunity and play with the lead for one point this weekend,” Micheletto said. “We weren’t able to do that. … But when you get down two (goals) in this league, it requires you to commit to the rush a little bit more than maybe you’d like.”

The Minutemen are currently in talent purgatory. They are still victims of the Toot Cahoon era.

It’s not that UMass doesn’t have talented players. It simply doesn’t have enough players built for Micheletto’s fast, physical system.

It’s no coincidence that two of the Minutemen’s most active players so far this season have been Steven Iacobellis and Ray Pigozzi – a pair of freshmen who are part of Micheletto’s first recruiting class – on the second line alongside Troy Power. Iacobellis and Power both scored power play goals over the weekend while Pigozzi moved noticeably well with them on the ice.

Those are the kind of players Micheletto wants in his system. Although he liked the way his team transitioned last year, the sooner he has an entire crop of recruits in his lineup, the better.

“We’re gonna continue to recruit to that,” Micheletto said before the season. “I think every year as you go by you’re gonna continue to get those types of players that not only you’re attracted to, but now become attracted to your program because of the style of play and guys that they see going to your program in years before.”

There’s no question UMass will continue to compete the rest of the season. There are too many upperclassmen and this team is too well-coached for that not to be the case. However, based on one quick look, the Minutemen are still not ready to be considered among the best Hockey East has to offer.

Give it two years. By then, we’re looking at a UMass team built for a system that has given opponents fits.

Not only will the Minutemen compete with the best. They will finally start to beat the best.

Nick Canelas can be reached at ncanelas@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.

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