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Mr. Friday Night

Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

For two years as an underclassman on the Massachusetts hockey team, forward Shane Walsh wasn’t a goal scorer in any real sense of the term.

In 61 games as a freshman and sophomore, the 5-foot-10, 173-pound winger scored just four goals for the Minutemen, a modest total for a grinder or fourth line player and nowhere near the level of production expected out of a top-six player in college hockey.

Since turning the page to his junior year, however, Walsh has put the puck in the back of the net at no less than a prolific rate. In his 68 games as an upperclassman, Walsh has scored 31 times, best on UMass in that span. His 17 goals this season lead the team and ties Walsh for third in goals in all of Hockey East.

The turnaround didn’t completely come out of nowhere, but it wasn’t far from it.

“I think you could see Shane’s skill set. He’s got a good stick, a good offensive mind. So I thought that there was potential for him to become an offensive player,” UMass coach John Micheletto said. “I don’t know that I could say that I would’ve seen him scoring at the clip he’s done the last year and a half.”

One of two active seniors on the Minutemen roster, Walsh reflected back to his early years and the progress he has made in the offensive end.

“Those first two years, I really couldn’t put my finger on why I wasn’t able to produce the way I have been. I think a lot has to do with the opportunities you are put into, the positions that you are in, stuff like that,” Walsh said. “Last year, whatever clicked, I was able to gain some confidence. My skill set was able to come out. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to produce pretty consistently.”

‘Pretty consistently’ is a humble response – in a season where UMass has seen some of its worst defeats in years, Walsh has carried the goal-scoring load almost completely on his shoulders. He’s seven goals clear of sophomore Dennis Kravchenko for the team lead and is one of only two players in double digits in the goal scoring category for the Minutemen.

Although it may seem like a switch was flipped overnight, scoring goals has been a four-year process for the West Roxbury native.

The evolution of a goal scorer

Despite the lack of production in his freshman and sophomore seasons, there were small hints that Walsh would be able to develop into an effective offensive player. As Micheletto said, the skill set and offensive mind were there.

But as it is for many players, the transition from junior hockey to the college level was not a quick or easy one for the senior winger.

“I always had the talent and skill set,” Walsh said. “I was pretty offensive growing up. Getting here, it takes a little bit to adjust to the speed of the game.”

Micheletto had the more analytical coach’s view. Part of Walsh’s struggles, he said, were due to the adjustment factor to the college game, but he also noted that Walsh was mainly a bottom-six player his first two years with the Minutemen. As a result, he was rarely paired with top playmakers on the team.

Now, he bounces between the top two lines and gets to play with skilled players like Kravchenko, Ray Pigozzi, Austin Plevy and other top-six forwards on the team.

But that’s far from the only explanation for his increase in production. Although he didn’t do much scoring in his first two years, Walsh gained valuable experience at the Division I level and slowly learned what it took to put pucks in the back of the net.

“As you get older and you play more games, the game kind of slows down for you,” Walsh said. “You’re able to read those plays better than you were as a freshman.”

Now a senior, Walsh has developed the kind of traits associated with a natural goal scorer. He’s in the right spot at the right time, gets to the front of the net and has a nose for the puck in goal scoring areas.

He’s also shooting the puck more – a lot more. In his first two seasons, Walsh was credited with 130 shots on goal. In the subsequent two years, Walsh has recorded 223.

To junior captain Steven Iacobellis, this is the simple explanation for Walsh’s lift-off as a goal scorer.

“He’s just started shooting the puck more,” Iacobellis said, “and getting the puck on net any way he can.”

This accounts for some of his improvement in the offensive end, but Walsh has also displayed a knack for finding the “quiet ice,” as Iacobellis called it.

Micheletto agreed.

“The single biggest factor for Shane is he has gotten to the right spot more frequently and learned where that is when he doesn’t have the puck,” Micheletto said.

Whatever the reason – likely a combination of the factors described above – Walsh has turned into a bona-fide goal scorer for the Minutemen, an important offensive piece for a team that’s needed all the help it can get the last two years.

Cool, calm and collected

Due to his knack for scoring important goals that have swung the momentum of games, Walsh has developed a reputation as a clutch scorer for UMass.

It’s also earned him a nickname that’s stuck within the UMass hockey community over the last few years – “Mr. Friday Night.”

“It’s a cool nickname. My teammates and my buddies back home kind of joke around about it and give me a hard time,” Walsh said with a laugh. “There are definitely worse nicknames out there.”

Though it technically came in the early hours of Saturday morning on March 7, 2015, there’s no better example of Walsh’s penchant for scoring big goals than his game winner in the fifth overtime of a Hockey East opening round game against Notre Dame.

The goal ended the longest game in college hockey history at 151 minutes and 42 seconds. Walsh has said it’s one of his favorite memories with the Minutemen, but it’s hardly the only important goal he’s scored.

Micheletto thinks Walsh’s success late in games or in big moments stems from his laid-back demeanor on and off the ice.

“It’s indicative of his personality. In crucial times, he doesn’t really change who he is as a person,” Micheletto said. “He doesn’t let anxiety or panic or the pressure of the moment change the way he plays the game. As that started to reveal itself more and more… guys kind of look to him as a calming influence in those situations.”

That ‘calming influence’ is something Walsh displays during games and in the locker room. It’s earned him the respect of teammates and coaches alike as someone who leads by example.

“I’m not really that rah-rah-rah guy all the time. I pick my spots to talk,” Walsh said. “A lot of leadership has to do with leading by example. Going out to practice every day, or in the weight room working hard, guys can see what you are doing and know that it leads to some kind of success.”

One last Friday night

As a native of West Roxbury, Walsh plays just a couple hours away from friends and family members, many of whom will be in attendance for Senior Night on Friday at Mullins Center when the Minutemen take on No. 5 Providence College.

“My whole family will be here. My mom, my dad, my two sisters, my niece,” Walsh said. “Besides them, a few aunts and uncles will be here as well as some friends and family from back home.”

It won’t be the last game of Walsh’s career at UMass, but it will almost certainly be his last game at Mullins Center. The Minutemen will visit the Friars Saturday night in their regular season finale and will need to pull off a major upset against one of the top teams in Hockey East in the first round of the playoffs if they want to host another game in Amherst this season.

The Mullins Center hasn’t always been a kind place to UMass in Walsh’s tenure. Particularly in the last two years, poor performance on the ice and thinning crowds in the stands have turned the arena into a building that isn’t always fun for the home team to play in.

Still, Walsh has persevered through the losing and grown tremendously as a hockey player. This year, he’s been one of the few bright spots on a team that hasn’t given fans much hope.

Despite the fact that the Minutemen are virtually assured of a last-place finish and are heavy underdogs against a dominant Providence team, Walsh is still looking forward to one more Friday night at his home arena. It will only be more meaningful with his friends and family in attendance.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to call UMass my home the last four years,” Walsh said. “It’ll be cool to have them in the stands. It should be a special night on Friday.”

With the rate he’s been scoring goals, it would be no surprise to see Mr. Friday Night go out with one more for the Minutemen.

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

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