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UMass hockey prepares for Vermont, Hockey East Tournament

Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

The Massachusetts hockey team is in the midst of a two-week break between its final regular season game and its Hockey East Tournament opener at Vermont on Friday. But that doesn’t mean the Minutemen are sitting back on the couch and getting caught up with the new season of “House of Cards.”

Instead, UMass, which is the No. 10 seed in the tournament, is hard at work trying to sharpen its skills and coming up with a game plan for the Catamounts.

The Minutemen didn’t know that they would be facing No. 15 UVM, which made it into the tournament as the No. 7 seed, until Saturday night so last week was more about focusing on themselves. But now that they know they will be taking a three-hour bus ride north to Burlington, Vt. rather than a plane trip out to South Bend, Ind., they are looking hard at a Catamounts squad that beat them twice this season.

A long layoff can present some unintended consequences, especially when the opponent played two competitive games against UMass Lowell last weekend. But the good news for UMass (8-21-4, 4-13-3 HEA) is that this isn’t their first rodeo. UMass had 10 days off in between a disappointing 3-2 loss to American International on Jan. 14 and the start of the second half of the Hockey East season on Jan. 24 against Merrimack.

UMass responded to that long break with a win against the Warriors, and coach John Micheletto and his squad are hoping that it can do the same once again.

“We did a pretty similar thing in January when we had that break after that Tuesday game against AIC at home,” he said.

“So we gave our guys an extra day off this time than we did there,” he added. “But we approach practice pretty much the same way. … We continued to work on skills and playmaking last week, and that freed us up more this week to look more specifically at the game prep stuff – focus on Vermont.”

Friday’s single elimination game in the first round of the Hockey East Tournament against the Catamounts (18-12-3, 10-10 HEA) has a lot riding on it for both teams. Both teams’ ultimate goal is to win the Hockey East and make the NCAA Tournament, but UVM has a chance to make the tournament without winning the conference based on its tie for No. 13 in the Division I PairWise rankings. However, a loss to UMass could diminish those chances. The Minutemen, on the other hand, know they have to win the Hockey East to make the NCAA Tournament.

But instead of looking at that as an insurmountable task, UMass is excited for what lies ahead, especially considering that it missed the chance to play in the Hockey East Tournament last season.

“The guys are looking at it as an unbelievable opportunity,” Micheletto said. “It kind of cleans the slate for everybody. We’re all starting at 0-0, as Conor Sheary said yesterday, and we’re just looking to get on a run at the bright time of the year. We certainly know we have the ability – it’s just a matter of the execution part of it.”

The last time these two teams faced off was the weekend of Nov. 22, and the Minutemen dropped both contests. Micheletto said that he was happy with the way that his team played at even strength during those two games, but that it was his team’s inability on the penalty kill that cost them the win.

One thing that UMass didn’t have in those contests, and all season, was the skill set of Frank Vatrano. But Vatrano is now eligible to play in the Hockey East Tournament and although he might be a little rusty, he adds another scoring threat to the Minutemen offense.

“It’s a little bit odd, but at the same time it’s great,” Micheletto said. “Frank clearly has a lot of ability, adds a lot of energy to the lineup as well as a great voice in the locker room.… The other things that we are trying to stress to Frank and everybody: It’s not just gonna rest on his shoulders, someone who has not been in a competitive hockey game for almost a full season.”

Troy Power is “certainly gonna be a go on Friday,” according to Micheletto.

Also adding to the intrigue in this game is the fact that Micheletto’s first playoff game at UMass is against the team to which he used to be an assistant coach. But he is more focused on where he is now, rather than where he was in the past.

“It’s two years removed now from my being there,” he said. “Although a lot of the same players (are there), you’re so invested in what you are doing (at UMass).”

Friday’s game is scheduled to start at 7:05 p.m. and will be shown on NESN.

Cameron McDonough can be reached at cameronm@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Cam_McDonough.

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