UMass hockey seniors embrace final chance to win Hockey East Tournament game
In March 2012, T.J. Syner was choking back tears as he dealt with the finality of his Massachusetts hockey career.
The Minutemen had just been eliminated by Boston College in a crushing 3-2 defeat at Conte Forum in the second game of the Hockey East Quarterfinals, falling short of their goal of going to TD Garden for the final weekend of the conference tournament.
Syner was devastated. He wore his emotions through the expression on his face. It was a feeling he never wanted his teammates to experience again, especially the underclassmen.
“We talked to the (younger) guys a bit after, and told them to remember the feeling that we feel right now – four years, no Garden – but we don’t want them to go through that same thing,” Syner said after the game. “We told them how much they grew throughout the year, and how they can keep developing. By doing the little things right, they’ll find themselves there.”
On Friday night, UMass will play its first conference tournament game since that night in Chestnut Hill. The Minutemen made it as a No. 10 seed thanks to the new format that gives every team an automatic bid. But it also means they’re forced to play Vermont in a single-elimination game in the opening-round contest.
For UMass’ nine seniors, Friday will be their last chance to earn a playoff win before their careers in Amherst are over. And as they prepared for this final opportunity in practice this week, they finally understood the words of the seniors before them.
“Every senior class that has been here before us has said, ‘Don’t wait. This is the time to do it,’” senior co-captain Conor Sheary said. “You don’t realize it until it’s actually your last chance. It’s something we want to prove we can do and something we want to do for the other guys.”
Sheary heads a senior class highlighted by individual achievements, including a pair of 100-point scorers in Sheary and Michael Pereira. However, the Minutemen are just 39-81-21 in those four years and are winless in four postseason games, having missed the conference tournament altogether last year.
The seniors have been heavily scrutinized for their lack of team success throughout the season, most notably after its loss to American International on Jan. 14 when alumni and media members referred to the class as a failure on Twitter.
The only way to change those thoughts is by winning.
“It might be a little extra pressure on us, but it’s good pressure and it’s something we used to our advantage and something we wanna use to prove to everyone that we can win in this league,” Sheary said.
Some players, such as Pereira, are excited to play under such pressure.
“I don’t mind it. I actually enjoy it,” he said. “I haven’t played in a game like this in a while. It brings out the best in some people and it might bring out the worst in some others, but I think a lot of people are ready to go. It’s just one game. Anything could happen. In a do-or-die situation, you find out what you’re made of.”
Despite the increased magnitude of the game, the Minutemen have tried to keep the same approach to Friday’s game as they have had with every other one this season.
UMass coach John Micheletto had a discussion with Sheary and co-captain Troy Power, and the message that was passed down to the upperclassmen never changed. But, the significance of the postseason, particularly to the seniors, hasn’t been lost on anyone.
“They obviously want to finish on a real up-note,” Micheletto said. “Winning Friday and keeping us going through the playoffs would be a real nice way for those guys to continue what they started over the last four years.”
Ultimately, Friday’s game is about more than UMass picking up that elusive first playoff win since March 13, 2009. It’s about leaving a legacy that past players couldn’t achieve.
“I think just having those guys around and knowing that they didn’t get the job done, you really wanna push for those guys,” Pereira said. “We talk about legacy here on the team and you wanna leave your legacy. When you pull over that jersey, you’re wearing it for the guys who’ve played before you and you wanna get it done for them just as much as you get it done for yourself and the guys in the locker room now.”
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.