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Canelas: Play of top line essential to UMass hockey’s success

It was a 3-1 game. Denver had snatched momentum from the Massachusetts hockey team with a pair of goals in the second period, and seemed well on its way to snapping the Minutemen’s three-game winning streak.

Nicole Evangelista/Daily Collegian

Then The Big Three stepped onto the ice.

Branden Gracel made a play down low to get the puck to Michael Pereira in the faceoff circle. Pereira shot but didn’t get a full piece of the puck. It was deflected and landed right in front for Conor Sheary to come in and finish the play to cut the UMass deficit to 3-2 16 minutes, 44 seconds into the second period.

Then in the final seconds of the frame, Sheary had a breakaway bid that was stopped by the pad of Pioneers goaltender Sam Brittain, but drew a slashing penalty in the process. That power play quickly turned into a two-man advantage after Denver’s Josiah Didier received a five-minute major and game misconduct for roughing after the whistle.

Momentum was back in the Minutemen’s favor.

UMass eventually lost Tuesday night’s game at Mullins Center 5-3, but all it took was two impressive shifts by the Minutemen’s top forward line to give them odds a gambler could only dream of entering the third period after looking seemingly hopeless midway through the second frame.

“They’re great to play with,” Sheary said of his linemates. “We’ve been together for the past two years and we’ve put up pretty good numbers. I think that really helps our team win. They’re great to play with and it shows on the scoresheet.”

The trio was paired together for the first time midway through last season and found immediate success, turning UMass’ offense into a threat with its speed, skill and knack for finding the back of the net.

The problem, however, was that Sheary, Pereira and Gracel were the only players consistently producing for the Minutemen, and it hurt them in the final weeks of the season when inconsistent play left them out of the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Entering 2013-14, UMass coach John Micheletto emphasized the need for more scoring depth. He got it in the form of the Troy Power, Ray Pigozzi and Steven Iacobellis line.

However, The Big Three went cold. Gracel in particular struggled coming off a team-best 34-point campaign last year, and was demoted to the third line on Nov. 2.

The trio still saw time together on the power play, but the Minutemen were losing, and one of the biggest reasons was because of a lacking offense. In the six games they were broken up, UMass scored no more than twice in a game and won just once.

On Nov. 24, The Big Three was back together. Six games later, they’re scoring goals on a nightly basis and the Minutemen are playing their best hockey of the season.

The top line has contributed at least one goal in each of those last six games and UMass won three of its last four contests entering the holiday break.

“We were broken apart for a while then we came back and we really started rolling,” Sheary said. “We’ve been putting up goals every night it feels like. It’s definitely a big role on the team and it’s our role.

“We’re not gonna go out there and start hitting people and getting in deep,” Sheary added. “We’re gonna provide energy in different ways than other lines might. I think we’re doing a good job of that right now.”

Micheletto has a plan in place. The way he approaches the game, the type of players he recruits and how he defines success is much different than that of longtime coach Toot Cahoon, who recruited each of the Minutemen’s three stars.

But this plan is a long-term plan. This plan is supposed to change the culture of a program that has been defined by losing for all but one year in its history. Being seniors, Sheary, Gracel and Pereira won’t be part of that. They only have one season, this current season, to make the most of a career that has been defined by losing records and early postseason exits.

At 6-12-2, it doesn’t look like this year will be any different than the previous three. The only players that can change this in the 14 games remaining are UMass’ three best players. No Division I college hockey team can be successful without its best players playing at their best, and the Minutemen are no exception.

Even with the Power line becoming arguably the most surprising trio in Hockey East and Steve Mastalerz channeling his inner Martin Brodeur at times, the Minutemen have a better chance of seeing Frank Vatrano in a regular season game this year than making it to TD Garden for the Hockey East semifinals at this rate.

But if any group of players is going to lead UMass on a shocking run, it’s going to be The Big Three. Their play will dictate just how capable of the 2013-14 Minutemen are, and just how far they can go.

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

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