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Gienieczko: UMass hockey must prove it’s competitive against top teams

(Nic Renyard let in 4 goals, including this one late in the third period. UMass Men's Ice Hockey lost to Merrimack 4-2 at the Mullins Center Friday night. Judith Gibson-Okunieff/ Daily Collegian)

(Nic Renyard let in 4 goals, including this one late in the third period. UMass Men’s Ice Hockey lost to Merrimack 4-2 at the Mullins Center Friday night. Judith Gibson-Okunieff/ Daily Collegian)

At 6-5-4, the Massachusetts hockey team has clearly taken a step forward as it nears the midway point of the 2015-16 season.

Last year at this point, the Minutemen were struggling, with a minus 24 goal differential on their way to a dismal 4-11 record.

This season, UMass is tied for third in Hockey East with eight points and finally looks like a team with aspirations beyond the first round of the conference tournament. Led by a dynamic first line center in Dennis Kravchenko, a group of freshmen defensemen that have stabilized the blue line and a calming presence in goal in freshman Nic Renyard, the Minutemen are playing with a jump in their game that had been missing for too long, and attendance is finally starting to increase at the Mullins Center.

They’ve been good, but they won’t be great until they take the next step in the program’s development: competing with – and beating – some of the best teams in the country.

UMass has lost five games this season and all five have come against nationally ranked opponents.

No. 10 Yale handed the Minutemen their first loss of the season in a 6-1 defeat in the championship round of the Capital City Classic in Trenton, New Jersey. Days later, No. 2 Boston College dealt UMass a similarly decisive 7-0 loss.

After sweeping UConn, the Minutemen turned their attention to No. 16 Merrimack. It was a close game, nothing like the blowout losses against the Eagles and Bulldogs. But the result was no different – a late empty net goal clinched a 4-2 victory for the Warriors.

And just last weekend, UMass was swept by No. 3 Quinnipiac in a home-and-home series, the first time the Minutemen have been blanked in a series this year.

After Friday night’s loss to the Bobcats, UMass coach John Micheletto said the team was closer to the top level than they were when the season started, and his team’s effort the next day proved him right. The Minutemen still lost in a tight 1-0 battle with Qunnipiac, but Micheletto said it was one of the best games his team had played this year.

Still, it was another loss to a ranked team and the national opinion of UMass will not change until it proves that it can beat good teams, not just skate with them.

The Minutemen have flirted with appearances in the top 20 and have been the first or second team out in multiple weekly polls. It’s not hard to connect the dots: voters have been hesitant to rank UMass because of its lack of high-quality wins.

The Minutemen have beaten the teams they’ve been expected to – sweeping Colorado College (1-13) and UConn (3-10), while adding victories against Maine (4-8-3) and Sacred Heart (5-8-2).

But until they start beating good teams, they’ll continue to be an afterthought to national voters.

The good news is that UMass has plenty of opportunities to redeem itself. The Minutemen still have a pair of games against the defending national champions and Hockey East rival Providence (No. 1), as well as matchups against in-state rivals like Boston University and UMass Lowell (No. 11 and 5, respectively). In total, 11 of the final 20 games on UMass’s schedule are against currently ranked teams.

Few teams will face that level of competition in the second half of the year, but the tough schedule could be a blessing or a curse for the Minutemen. If they continue to struggle against top competition, the second half of the season could be a long one.

It could also be an opportunity.

Entrants into the NCAA tournament must either win their conference or receive an at-large bid, and the Hockey East tournament is a gauntlet. The Minutemen aren’t even on the radar for a bid right now and they’ll need quality wins to even earn consideration. But with 11 games left against ranked teams, there are still opportunities for UMass to prove itself against the best in the nation.

It’s the next step in the program’s development, and it’ll be just as challenging as the four-year climb out of the Hockey East cellar.

Ross Gienieczko can be reached at rgieniec@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @RossGien.

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