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UMass hockey sets out to create new program, identity in 2017-18

(Caroline O’Connor/Daily Collegian)

It’s been nearly two weeks since the Massachusetts hockey team officially set out on its 2017-18 campaign, with coach Greg Carvel in his second year at the helm.

Through four non-conference matchups with Arizona State, Union and American International this season, the Minutemen currently sit at 3-1.They split a two-game weekend with ASU to start things off and have only improved since, winning a game at Union and their home opener over AIC.

After finishing last in the Hockey East Conference and only managing a total of five wins a season ago, the University of Massachusetts saw nine of its players either transfer or leave the program due to personal reasons.

With such a shakeup to its core roster, the Minutemen will look to a variety of fresh faces and young returners this season, hoping to dramatically turn the program around.

First-round National Hockey League draft choice Cale Makar and second round draft pick Mario Ferraro highlight the new-look of the UMass roster, which features 13 freshmen.

The Minutemen made further use of their open roster spots with the additions of senior and sophomore transfers Niko Rufo and Josh Couturier from Providence and Boston College, respectively.

According to Carvel, the stark contrast between the number of newcomers and returning players is something that’s typically not seen around the Hockey East.

“It’s unusual, we have 28 roster players this year, and 15 had never played a game here,” Carvel said. “It’s a different situation. We only have one senior and one graduate transfer [Rufo], so we’re a very young team.”

Makar was selected fourth overall by the Colorado Avalanche in the NHL Entry draft while Ferraro went 49th overall to the San Jose Sharks in June. The 18 and 19-year-old defensemen signify the highest draft picks ever for the Minutemen.

In the early goings of his second season at the program’s helm, Carvel has emphasized the team’s focus on building a different, stronger identity than that of past seasons, which continually met sub-par results.

“We’re extremely young, so it’s going to be tough to compete and win battles, but I think the identity of the team is already much stronger,” Carvel said. “The understanding of what we are and what we need to become and the process to get there; I like where our mindset is.”

According to sophomore forward Griff Jeszka, the Minutemen are firmly behind their bench boss and taking the “NewMass” identity, that Carvel and his staff promote, in stride.

“What I love about [Carvel] is that he holds everyone accountable,” Jeszka said. “If they’re not pushing their weight or pushing our program forward every day in practice, he’s gonna hold them accountable.”

In the defensive end, UMass will rely on lone senior Jake Horton to utilize his three years of on-ice experience with the Minutemen to lead young players like Makar and Ferraro.

Horton, a Minnesota native, played in 26 games last season, collecting seven points on three goals while also adding three power play assists.

Returning sophomores Shane Bear, Jake McLaughlin and junior Ivan Chukarov are notable defensemen who’ll join Horton on the blue line.

In net for UMass, play has been split down the middle for goalies Matt Murray and Ryan Wischow. Murray, a freshman, has two wins and 45 saves in two starts. Returning sophomore Ryan Wischow garnered a .897 save percentage last season, but has allowed eight goals thus far.

Carvel likes what he’s seen out of his freshmen goalie so far.

In my years in college I haven’t had a goalie like [Murray] who’s really calm in the net,” Carvel said. “He’s just steady and he kind of has a calming influence. He’s a big kid that moves well, pucks hit him, pretty good rebound control and another really good teammate.”

Carvel expects to continue giving minutes to both goalies during this weekend’s games.

On the attack, a notable standout through four games has been Amherst native John Leonard, who has three goals and a team-leading seven points.

In front of the Mullins crowd on Saturday, Leonard scored two goals and attained an assist in his first showing in front of family and friends.

 Junior Kurt Keats, Rufo and a handful of freshmen forwards will aid Leonard in the offensive zone.

In 2016, Keats garnered 13 points on five goals while dishing out eight assists. Rufo has scored twice through his first four games with the Minutemen.

The first big test of the season for UMass will come on Oct. 21 and 22, when Big Ten opponent Ohio State makes a visit to the Mullins Center for two nights of competitive puck.

Hockey East play kicks off the following week when the Minutemen take on Merrimack College.

On Nov. 9 and 11, UMass will square off in a home and away with Providence, which ended its previous season with three straight losses and an early exit from the Hockey East Tournament.  

The Minutemen will finish up the first half of their season with another trip to Union on Dec. 10 before starting things back up when it travels to Yale on Jan. 5 after the break.

Through the remainder of January and into February, the Minutemen will be confronted with four tough tests, as they play a pair of games with top-competitors, Boston College and Boston University.

 

Without a “C”

 The Minutemen have yet to name a team captain through four games. According to Carvel, that announcement may not come for some time; if at all this season.

Although it appears no official announcement will be made anytime soon, Carvel noted that UMass’ lone senior, Horton, has stepped up as a veteran leader.

“Horton has been great. He’s kind of our de facto captain, we don’t wear a “C” and that’s not an issue on our team,” Carvel said. “The guys play hard and look up to Jake because he’s been through it for three years already and he does a tremendous job settling the guys down too when it’s needed.”

According to Makar, the freshmen that make up nearly half the Minuteman roster all want to be leaders coming in, but ultimately know their roles and share a common goal to learn this season.

“At the end of the day,” Makar said, “We look to the returning guys as leaders.”

 

Liam Flaherty can be reached at lpflaherty@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @_LiamFlaherty.

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