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Frank Vatrano impressive in UMass hockey debut in exhibition contest

It was a day Frank Vatrano has looked forward to all season.

A redshirt freshman on the Massachusetts hockey team, Vatrano is ineligible to play in an official game until the 2014 Hockey East Tournament, but got his first taste of game action on Sunday when the Minutemen hosted the U.S. National Under-18 Team in an exhibition contest.

Maria Uminski/Daily Collegian

Maria Uminski/Daily Collegian

He made the most of it.

Vatrano scored a power-play goal and assist while playing on UMass’ top forward line in a 5-2 win at Mullins Center.

It may have been an ordinary scrimmage for the rest of the Minutemen. But for Vatrano, it was relief. He’s practiced with the Minutemen all season, but Sunday marked his first organized game since January 2013, meaning he could finally hit someone in another jersey.

“When you play against your teammates you don’t wanna go so hard against them, you don’t want to hurt them, but it was great,” said Vatrano, who was a former player for the USA. “It felt like a college game to me because I remember when I was in their shoes playing against Michigan, Wisconsin, all those schools.”

Vatrano has been ineligible to play for UMass all season due to an “admissions documentation discrepancy at his previous academic institution,” according to a university release back in September. Vatrano originally signed with Boston College and was expected to be a third or fourth line player for the Eagles last season, but was ruled ineligible to play after he wasn’t accepted by the NCAA Clearinghouse.

Vatrano withdrew from BC as a result and played for the EJHL’s Boston Junior Bruins last season. He committed to UMass in October 2012 and enrolled the following January, but Sunday was the first time he got to pull the maroon and white game sweater over his head to play in a real game.

It’s something Vatrano has waited all too long to do.

“It’s been a lot of ups and downs,” Vatrano said of the last year. “You can get frustrated really easily, especially in practice. You’re playing as hard as you can and you’re playing the best you can like you’re planning on being in the lineup. Then you look at the end of the week and you’re not gonna be in the lineup.

“You make one mistake in practice and you’re like, ‘How am I gonna make up for this? I’m not playing in the game.’ So you gotta keep your head on straight and keep working hard.”

Vatrano was placed on the left wing alongside Adam Phillips and Troy Power in the starting lineup, and wasted little time getting fans hopeful about the future, scoring a power-play goal just four minutes, one second into the game to give the Minutemen an early 1-0 lead.

On the man-advantage with Steven Iacobellis and Power, Vatrano scored on a rebound after Power’s shot from in front hit off the pad of USA goaltender Blake Weyrick. Vatrano got in position and took multiple hacks at the net before finally burying the puck into a wide-open net and throwing his hands up in celebration.

“It was a good feeling,” he said. “I’m not used to scoring goals, it’s been a long time. It’s kind of a blur, really, just seeing the puck go in the net.”

The East Longmeadow native reserved 30 tickets for Sunday’s game. Those friends and family members – along with the other 1,185 spectators – got to see the kind of effort that UMass coach John Micheletto sees all the time in practice.

“It’s like every day I see him in practice,” Micheletto said. “That is, in my opinion, a tremendous compliment to Frank. He loves to play hockey. He attacks the game the same day on Monday at 12:45 p.m. at practice as he did (Sunday), so the excitement and celebration after the goal is just exactly who he is as a kid.”

Vatrano finished with four shots for the game, with his most impressive attempt coming in the final seconds of the first period on a rocket right off the face-off that went just over the net as the horn went off.

It may just become his signature shot here in Amherst.

“It’s one of my favorite plays,” he said. “You don’t want to do it too many times though because teams start catching on.”

Vatrano has nearly an entire two months to wait before the Hockey East Tournament begins, but Micheletto already said he’ll be “happy to have Frank under consideration come March.”

Thus begins the countdown to the playoffs.

“I can’t wait,” Vatrano said.

Other highlights

  • Conor Sheary, Power, Branden Gracel and Mike Busillo all scored goals for the Minutemen as part of a four-goal second period for UMass. Phillips added two assists as well.
  • Steve Mastalerz had a relatively quiet night thanks to some strong defense in front of him, making 12 saves for the easy shutout in two periods of play. Freshman Mac Haight 10 minutes, 57 seconds for the Minutemen, making seven saves and allowing a goal to Boston University commit Jack Eichel. Alex Wakaluk filled in the rest of the way. Wakaluk made eight saves and gave up a goal to Notre Dame commit Anders Bjork.
  • Both Michael Pereira and Ray Pigozzi didn’t dress for the UMass in Sunday’s exhibition, but Micheletto said afterward that they were healthy scratches.
  • The Minutemen return to the Mullins Center ice Tuesday at 7 p.m. in a non-conference matchup with American International.

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

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