In each of two games against Merrimack, the Massachusetts hockey team was on the verge of completing an upset win and skating away with points.
Had his team won in its home-and-home series this past weekend, UMass coach Don Cahoon might have cause for celebration.
After all, the Minutemen (6-18-5, 5-13-5 Hockey East) have not won a game against a ranked opponent all season (0-13-2) and a win against the No. 6 Warriors (21-5-4, 15-5-3 HEA) would have been their first since beating No. 17 Maine on March 6, 2010.
UMass didn’t win, dropping Friday’s game at the Mullins Center 4-3 in overtime and Saturday’s loss, 2-1, at Lawler Arena.
The Minutemen are currently on an eight-game winless streak, yet they have been burned in four close games since the 11-2 drubbing they received on Feb. 5 at Merrimack.
“Pucks end up in the net, we lose games,” Cahoon said after Friday’s game. “We’re not the victim; we beat ourselves.”
UMass squandered a one-goal lead it held through the first 50 minutes of Friday’s loss, in a game that featured five goals scored in the final 12 minutes of regulation and a game-winning goal 25 seconds into overtime.
“It’s pretty disheartening that the last three games have been overtime games and we’ve found a way to lose two of them,” Cahoon said in an interview with Brock Hines of UMass Sports Radio.
Saturday’s game did not have the same devastating finish for the Minutemen, but they lost by the same slim margin of defeat.
In its last four games, UMass is 0-3-1, including three-straight overtime games. Following a two-and-a-half month span without an overtime contest, the Minutemen played four since Jan. 29, resulting in two points.
Looking back on the season, UMass has a trend of playing close games. Of its 29 contests played this season, 13 were decided by one goal or less and all but one came in Hockey East play. Five ended in ties and only one resulted in a UMass win.
Six of the Minutemen’s first nine games were decided by fewer than two goals. A three-goal turnaround against No. 15 Minnesota on Oct. 9 came up short (L, 5-4). Later, a two-goal third-period comeback against then-No. 14 Boston University on Oct. 16 earned UMass a point (T, 2-2). A week later, the Minutemen again rallied with multiple goals against the No. 8 Terriers on Oct. 22 in a losing effort (L, 4-3).
Three games against Providence and No. 8 New Hampshire featured goals scored in the final eight minutes of regulation. A Darren Rowe goal with three minutes, 47 seconds left to play on Oct. 29 forced a tie against the Friars (T, 3-3). Two goals scored in the final 7:03 of the third period against the Wildcats on Nov. 13 saw UMass take a 3-2 lead before allowing a Blake Kessel goal with 42 seconds to play in regulation (T, 3-3).
Yet, those games are in the past. Even the 5-4 win over UMass Lowell on Jan. 14 when Danny Hobbs scored with 12 seconds left is forgotten about. The 5-3 loss to Northeastern on Jan. 7 when the Minutemen allowed three goals in 38 seconds to squander a 2-0 lead is a suppressed memory that Cahoon and his team can barely remember, even with a reminder.
In the forefront of the team’s collective consciousness is a 4-3 overtime loss on Feb. 11 to No. 14 BU. UMass overcame a 2-1 first-period deficit with two goals in the first four minutes of the second period to gain a 3-2 edge before the Terriers tied the game with 8:21 to play in the frame.
In their next contest, the Minutemen had a 2-0 lead evaporate in a 3-3 tie against Providence, allowing three consecutive Friars goals in the second period. But, after Chase Langeraap scored with 38 seconds left in regulation, UMass salvaged a point that remains the difference in the Hockey East standings.
Friday’s loss to Merrimack was the result of two power play goals in less than five minutes in the third period to erase a 1-0 UMass lead. Then, the Warriors added a backbreaking score with 1:22 left in the third period to force an overtime session that was “short and sweet,” like Cahoon’s postgame press conference.
The extra frame lasted 25 seconds before the game-winning goal was scored and two points were stolen from the Minutemen. Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said his team was lucky to get some of the breaks that it did at the Mullins Center.
On Saturday, UMass trailed the game throughout, yet a T.J. Syner goal in the third period gave the Minutemen hope that they could snag those lost points back from the Warriors.
Yet, UMass came up one goal short again and its most recent losses are magnified because of their timing. With four games left in the regular season and the Hockey East tournament looming, a postseason picture that appeared imminent is now more obscure with every game.
The Minutemen have now played five of their last six games against ranked opponents and hold the tie-breaker against the Catamounts, but not the Friars.
While there hasn’t been much reason to celebrate this season for Cahoon, that could change if the Minutemen win against No. 1 Boston College (16-6-1, 22-7-1 Hockey East) this weekend. UMass has not beaten a number one ranked team since it upset the Eagles 5-1 on Nov. 14, 2008 and two points might be all it needs to secure a postseason bid.
“They’re beatable like any other team,” Cahoon said. “They’re great. We just have to play our best hockey.”
Dan Gigliotti can be reached at [email protected]