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UMass hockey looks to improve depth heading into UNH

Massachusetts hockey coach John Micheletto had high expectations for his first line going into the season.

Seniors Conor Sheary, Michael Pereira and Branden Gracel were placed on the same line midway through last season and immediately jelled, finishing the season as the Minutemen’s top three leading scorers and accounting for 35 percent of the team’s point production.

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Micheletto didn’t just expect the trio to pick up where it left off; his intentions were for it to be even better.

“We hope they do more than they did last year,” Micheletto said in the preseason.

Eight games into the season, Micheletto is already changing things up. He moved sophomore Shane Walsh alongside Pereira and Sheary and dropped Gracel to the third line with Steven Guzzo and Brandon Wahlin.

Although Gracel had clearly been struggling – he was held pointless and accumulated 10 penalty minutes in the four games prior to the switch – Micheletto said it was a not a demotion but rather a move to enhance the depth among his lines.

“I don’t really see it as first and third (lines),” Micheletto said. “We’re trying to put pieces together that jel and maximize what our skills are. I know there’s perception that there is a promotion or a demotion when that happens.

“Obviously Branden got out of the gate quickly, then hit a flat spot,” Micheletto added, “but we’re also trying to find somebody to pair up with (Guzzo) to give us more offensive depth and we think that those two guys’ skill sets can complement each other so we can get more productive in different areas.”

Gracel didn’t take the move as a negative, either. He felt the line “wasn’t clicking” and sees the chance to build some chemistry with Guzzo and Wahlin as a fresh start, especially after starting last season on the same line as Guzzo.

UMass’ most productive forward line so far this season has been the second line of Troy Power, Steven Iacobellis and Ray Pigozzi, who have combined for 18 points through eight games together. The other three lines have yet to hit their stride.

As the Minutemen’s leading scorer with 34 points last year, Gracel agrees with Micheletto that the lineup change will give them some much-needed depth.

“If all three lines can be clicking at once, not many teams in Hockey East have three lines that can score,” Gracel said. “We could be a team that could do that.”

Walsh, on the other hand, embraced the opportunity to play alongside Sheary and Pereira and saw it as a significant confidence-booster.

“I just try to stay out of the way of those two,” Walsh joked. “I think I can make plays, I trust my offensive abilities so it’s definitely fun playing with guys like Pereira and Sheary.

“It shows you’re doing something right. At the same time you’ve gotta keep working and just prove you deserve to be up there.”

The Minutemen (3-4-1, 1-1-1 Hockey East) will have a chance to further develop that chemistry when they play a home-and-home series with New Hampshire, starting Friday at 7 p.m. at the Whittemore Center.

The Wildcats (1-5-1, 0-2 HEA) have made the NCAA Tournament 11 of the last 12 years, but haven’t played up to those standards so far this season. UNH has lost its last four contests and hasn’t won a game since its season opener on Oct. 11 against Clarkson.

In that time, the Wildcats have played a total of four nationally-ranked teams – Minnesota, Michigan, Rensselaer and UMass Lowell – six times, which Micheletto attributes to their struggles so far this season.

“That’s a buzz saw of a schedule that they had,” Micheletto said. “I think it’s been more of a scheduling piece, and they’ve been in every game so I don’t look at their record as being indicative of what their team is and I don’t think our guys do either. If anything, they’ll use it as motivation Friday night.”

UMass may be on the road on Friday, but it will feel much more like home than any road game it has played this season. The Minutemen are 0-4 on the road so far this season, but each ice surface has been much smaller than the big sheet at Mullins Center.

With Whittemore being a more familiar arena for UMass, it will make for less of an adjustment for the Minutemen.

“We struggled a little bit playing in the smaller rinks because we practice on the big rink here at Mullins Center so it’ll be more even ground and it’ll feel more comfortable going out there and playing on that sheet because we’re used to that ice here,” Gracel said.

Saturday’s contest with UNH will be at Mullins Center at 7 p.m. for Military Appreciation Night. The Minutemen will honor members of the military by wearing special camouflage jerseys and recognizing military guests throughout the evening.

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

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