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Canelas: Don’t count out UMass hockey in a playoff game

Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

Michael Pereira grinned menacingly, leaned in and warned every team in Hockey East about what they’re in for if they draw the Massachusetts hockey team in the conference tournament.

“We’re a scary team. I think we’re a really scary team,” he said. “I don’t think anyone wants to play us.”

The Minutemen had just lost their fifth straight game. It was Senior Night. The second game of a back-to-back against a struggling Providence team. It sounded ludicrous to hear such confidence.

But Pereira might be right.

UMass finished the 2013-14 regular season at 8-21-4 and will be either ninth or 10th in the 11-team Hockey East standings when all is said and done. But more than half of those losses – 11 to be exact – were by a single goal, including the last four to end the season. No matter which side of the score you’re on, I can’t think of a more frightening scenario than a one-goal game in a one-game playoff.

The Minutemen’s nine seniors only have one chance to win a playoff game. They’re hungry, desperate and have plenty to prove after four straight below average seasons. UMass’ starting lineup on Saturday night – Pereira, Conor Sheary, Branden Gracel, Joel Hanley and Colin Shea – has combined for over 400 career points. Its power play, which Friars coach Nate Leaman considered “pretty lethal,” is second in the conference and seventh in the nation at 22.3 percent. The only Hockey East team with more success on the man advantage is No. 1 Boston College (23.3 percent), which includes names such as Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold.

Speaking of the Eagles, let’s not undersell the debut of Frank Vatrano, either. The redshirt freshman was expected to be a regular in BC’s lineup last season, but withdrew after being ruled academically ineligible and failing to pass the NCAA Clearinghouse. He’s practiced all year with the Minutemen, had a goal and an assist in an exhibition versus the U.S. Under-18 Team and will finally be eligible to play this postseason.

Sure, none of this hides UMass’ struggles of late, and for most of this season. But the Minutemen also have the luxury of a bye week before their next game. While all other Hockey East teams are playing, UMass will be resting and working on the fundamentals, particularly its skill and speed. Then it’s on to game preparation.

The Minutemen had 10 days between their crushing loss to American International and their next game against Merrimack in January, and responded with an impressive 5-2 win over the Warriors. The long rest benefitted UMass once before, and it could have a similar impact leading up to a much bigger game.

“It was the formula we used coming off the AIC Tuesday game heading back into league play and I think it’s an effective one and one that’s easy for our guys to work through,” UMass coach John Micheletto said.

In terms of who their first opponent will be, the Minutemen will likely draw either Notre Dame or Vermont. The two teams are tied with 18 points, but the Catamounts hold the tiebreaker due to more conference wins, and they also have a game in hand.

The Irish finish their season at Boston College for one game while UVM has two against UMass Lowell. Barring some big upsets, it’s unlikely that either team will move from its respective spots in the standings.

However, Boston University is just two points behind the Minutemen for the ninth seed with two games against Northeastern, so a win would move UMass down to No. 10, setting up a showdown with the Catamounts.

UMass split a weekend series with the Irish on the road in December, but was arguably the better team on both nights. Notre Dame couldn’t keep up with the Minutemen’s speed either night, and if it weren’t for some costly penalties and a poor penalty-killing effort, UMass may have even earned a sweep.

Vermont, on the other hand, swept the Minutemen in a home and home series in November. But UMass was competitive in both games, falling 3-2 and 2-0.

The Minutemen, however, won’t admit to any preferences.

“It doesn’t matter who it is,” Micheletto said. “We try to approach every game the same way for this very reason.”

“We can play with anyone,” Sheary said.

It’s absurd for an outsider to believe, but UMass is not an easy postseason draw. The elements for an upset are already there. Anything can happen in a one-game playoff. The Minutemen won’t count themselves out, and neither should you.

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

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