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Canelas: UMass-Notre Dame series a statement weekend for both teams

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Every game is big. Every Hockey East point matters. This is a must-win. It’s time to step up.

These phrases sound familiar?

As a sports reporter, these are the type of things I hear from coaches and players on a regular basis. They’re the PR-driven words that both the interviewer and interviewee know that every sports fan – in this case, college hockey fan – expects to see between the quotation marks in their local newspaper or online publication.

As reporters, we’re trained to avoid using such clichés at all costs – unless the situation calls for it.

This weekend is one of those rare exceptions.

It may only be the first week of December, but the Massachusetts and No. 13 Notre Dame hockey teams are preparing for its most critical weekends of the still-young season. This is a chance to make a statement, to tell us mean, harsh and cynical reporters that we’re all wrong and don’t know what we’re talking about.

For UMass, it’s about instilling hope into a seemingly hopeless season. For the Irish, it’s about proving they belong in Hockey East.

The Minutemen were picked to finish 10th out of 11 teams in the preseason poll, which was nothing short of insulting to the nine seniors on the roster. Even many fans I spoke to were surprised at the low expectations for such a veteran team.

So far, it appears the so-called experts were right. UMass is tied for ninth in the conference despite playing more league games (nine) than any other Hockey East team, 10th in goals per game (1.80) and hasn’t won since Nov. 2, being outscored 28-7 in the seven games since.

Everything seems to be going according to plan, just not the Minutemen’s plans.

“It’s very frustrating,” co-captain Troy Power said. “It’s hard to stay positive. It’s hard to keep everyone together, but that’s something that, if we want to get out of this, that’s something we have to do. We have to come together and say ‘enough is enough’ and go to work and start winning some hockey games.

“It’s on us. We’re tired of losing hockey games. It’s gonna come to a point where we have to respond, to come together and work out of this.”

Hockey East has often been considered a superior league. Some would even argue it’s the best in the country. Four of the last six national champions have hailed from Hockey East and the conference has had at least one representative in the Frozen Four seven of the last eight years.

So it’s natural for the switch to Hockey East from just about any other conference to have its challenges. But that wasn’t expected to be the case for Notre Dame. The Irish won last year’s final Central Collegiate Hockey Association Tournament and have been a regular NCAA Tournament contender since coach Jeff Jackson took over in 2005-06 and turned the program around.

Notre Dame was picked to finish in the top four in its first Hockey East season in 2013-14, and while the Irish look like a tournament team through two months of play, their 2-3 mark against conference opponents, which doesn’t include Saturday’s non-conference defeat at the hands of a Northeastern team that finished last in the league last season, has been rather unimpressive.

Sure, it’s still early. But if the Irish can’t take advantage of a struggling UMass team with a pair of strong performances on home ice this weekend, it may be time to start questioning whether or not they belong in Hockey East.

It appears Notre Dame has the talent. But losing is only going to inject confidence in even the lowest of opponents, which could lead to an even further slide down the standings.

“They’ve lost a few games to teams people thought they should’ve beat so they’re definitely a beatable team,” co-captain Conor Sheary said. “They obviously want to prove themselves in Hockey East so we know they’re not gonna take us lightly.”

New Hampshire versus Boston College is the weekend series that Hockey East followers are probably anticipating the most. But what makes this weekend’s UMass-Notre Dame series so much more intriguing is what’s at stake.

These are two teams that believe they are much better than what they have shown so far and certainly much better than what us reporters would say about them right now. These teams have pride, they’re hungry for wins and it’s both sides’ last opportunity to earn Hockey East points before the calendar turns to 2014.

“It makes for two really good hockey games,” Power said. “I know coming into Hockey East you know how good of a league it is. (Notre Dame has) a great hockey team but it’s a very deep league and I’m sure they’ve realized that at the start of the season. I’m sure they want the points just as bad as we do and, when it comes down to it, it’s gonna be who wants it more.”

If I could describe the importance of this weekend without using clichés then I would. But since I can’t, let me just emphasize this one last time.

These are a pair of big, big games. These are statement games.

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

 

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