Maybe a little home ice advantage was all the Massachusetts hockey team needed to propel itself to its first win of the season.
Ignited by a rocking crowd of 7,078 at Mullins Center, the Minutemen used a pair of goals from Branden Gracel and a 31-save effort from goaltender Steve Mastalerz to top Michigan State 3-1 in their home opener on Friday night.
On Thursday, the University sent an email to students to inform them of a new seating arrangement for the student section to “create a better home ice advantage” for UMass, the email read. The change allowed students to fill the entire south end of the ice while the Minutemen’s bench was flipped to the east side of the arena.
It appeared to have worked to UMass’ advantage.
The Minutemen (1-2) played to their fast pace from the start while the crowd heckled Spartans goaltender Jake Hildebrand, who was pressured by 35 UMass shots for the game.
“When you know that 7,000 fans are behind you and they’re rooting for you and they’re watching every play you make to help you do better, it really helps and it’s an energy boost for the entire stadium,” Conor Sheary said.
“I thought the change of the student section really helped us get on (Hildebrand) too,” Sheary added. “We were peppering him all night and we finally got a couple to go in.”
Friday was also Sheary’s first game since being named the Minutemen’s captain for the 2013-14 season. The senior felt extra motivation wearing the “C” on his chest and did his part in the winning effort, creating chances throughout the night, making plays in the slot and finishing the game with five shots.
“You definitely have to take on a different role in the locker room and on the ice,” Sheary said. “You have to be a leader more than you have in the past. I kind of accepted that role (Friday). It’s a little different but I thought it worked out well.”
One thing UMass coach John Micheletto was disappointed with from his team after a winless first weekend was its inability to capitalize on its scoring chances and obtain an early lead.
It looked to be the case again in the first period on Friday night.
The Minutemen were outshot 15-10 in the first 20 minutes, but dominated play and had the better of the opportunities. However, UMass once again entered the locker room with strong play and nothing to show for it.
It didn’t take long for the Minutemen to change that in the second period. Gracel put UMass up 1-0 eight seconds into a Ryan Keller unsportsmanlike penalty three minutes, 26 seconds into the second period on a tap in from right in front of the net. Senior defenseman Joel Hanley controlled the puck at the point right off the face-off and quickly hit Gracel back door to beat Hildebrand.
Gracel told Hanley during the first intermission that the play had been open throughout the first period and this time the pair connected on their first chance of the second period.
“(Hanley) told me after that he didn’t even look where he threw the puck,” Gracel said. “He just passed it there so it worked out well.”
UMass doubled its advantage at 15:50 when Shane Walsh beat Hildebrand on a rebound bid glove-side high after freshman Brandon Wahlin’s initial shot from the point was mishandled by the netminder and landed right on the stick of Walsh. The assist was Wahlin’s first career point.
Greg Wolfe cut the the Minutemen’s lead in half 12:43 into the third period on an assist by Lee Reimer, but Mastalerz was strong the rest of the way, using his entire 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame to make a number a key stops late that may have gone unnoticed.
“I think if you watch Steve, he’s at his best when he’s quiet,” Micheletto said. “He played his angles well, he let pucks hit him when he needed to and he exploded into saves when he also needed to so I couldn’t have asked for a better performance out of him.”
Gracel put the game away at 19:16 on an empty-net goal to make it 3-1 UMass.
The two teams meet again Saturday night at 7 p.m. at Mullins Center.
Nick Canelas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.