Star search is on for Mass Attack

By Steve Levine

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian
Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

It seems like ages ago was when the Massachusetts hockey team finished in second place in the Hockey East.

In reality, it was five years ago, when the 2006-2007 Minutemen enjoyed their most successful season in over a decade.

That year, UMass went 15-9-3 in the conference, riding a balanced scoring attack and senior goaltender Jon Quick, who now starts for the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, all the way to the East Regional Finals. But the Minutemen fell to Maine, 3-2, disabling them from making their first-ever appearance in the NCAA’s Frozen Four.

Since that remarkable run five years ago, UMass has been eliminated in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs each year.

Granted, it’s tough playing in one of the hardest conferences in college hockey. Of the 10 teams in Hockey East, you can count on at least three to be ranked among the nation’s top 10 teams. Over the last four years, HEA has boasted three National Champions (Boston College in 2008, 2010 and 2011, Boston University in 2009).

But UMass coach Don Cahoon isn’t about to make excuses even with obvious disadvantages such as last year’s team makeup of 14 freshmen, who were all trying to hang with the big boys. The Minutemen ended up finishing 5-16-6 in the conference and 6-23-6 overall, marking the worst season since 1997-1998, when the Minutemen went 6-24-3. The season was a nightmare filled with heartbreaking losses for a team that struggled to find an identity.

Two years ago, UMass had a clear identity. That season, the Minutemen could count on consistent production from four highly-skilled, proven players: forwards Casey Wellman and James Marcou and defensemen Justin Braun and Matt Irwin. The foursome has since moved on to play with NHL affiliates. Wellman and Braun both have NHL experience, combining for 56 games over the past two years.

Without them last year, UMass was forced to rely on production throughout the roster. The philosophy was more or less “score by committee” – a mantra that invites inconsistency and a habit of falling just short.

In order for the Minutemen to return to the glory days five years ago, they’re going to need some stars to light up and shine bright.

Senior winger Danny Hobbs could be one of those stars. In his first two years, Hobbs didn’t receive much playing time because of veteran presence. However, last year’s freshmen-filled team ensured that Hobbs, who was selected in the seventh round of the 2007 NHL entry draft by the New York Rangers, would get major playing time on UMass’ top line. Hobbs ran with the opportunity, notching a team-leading 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists) in 31 games.

Senior center T.J. Syner could also be one of those stars. Syner has enjoyed consistent playing time throughout his UMass career, registering 60 points (24 goals, 36 assists) in 99 games. Syner has gotten better each year, and he finished last year with 27 points (9 goals, 18 assists) in 35 games.

Finally, sophomore winger Michael Pereira could be relied upon for a jump in production. Pereira opened eyes across the conference last year, tying Hobbs for the team lead in goals (12) while finishing with a third-best 25 points in 34 games.

Hobbs and Syner have the experience to take one last big leap before they graduate. It remains to be seen whether they will take on even bigger roles in the offense, but it certainly would be a welcome sight for UMass, which desperately needed veteran leadership last year to guide their abundance of freshmen.

Those freshmen are one year older now, and in a perfect world, they would be one year wiser, one year stronger and one year better. Unfortunately, it’s not that black and white. Cahoon doesn’t want to take anything for granted, and he believes it would be foolish to think his team can make big strides within the conference just because those freshmen are now sophomores. Still, the optimism is there, and if history is any indicator, UMass should at least improve from last season.

Despite the positive outlook, the Minutemen’s 2011-2012 campaign won’t end with them crowned as champions of Hockey East. It’s possible, but unrealistic. Nobody can expect a team that won six games last year to go toe-to-toe with New Hampshire, Boston College, Boston University, Merrimack or Maine for an entire season. Anybody outside of HEA can look at those teams and see a handful of NCAA title contenders.

USCHO’s Division I preseason poll ranks BC at No. 5, BU at No. 10, UNH at No. 12, Merrimack at No. 15 and Maine at No. 16.

Despite their lofty rankings, UMass played those teams very tough last year, often times falling just short of a marquee win.

Against BU, the Minutemen were 0-2-1. Both losses were decided by one goal. After an 11-2 drubbing against Merrimack, UMass responded with two close games, losing both by one goal. It was more of the same against Maine, who the Minutemen played very tough in their final two games (a 4-3 loss and a 4-4 tie).

Notice a pattern here? It’s clear that the Maroon and White are missing that final piece that puts them over the hump and into the same category as those teams.

The reality for now, at least, is that UMass has not been in the same class as those teams since the glorious 2006-2007 season. However, the beautiful thing about hockey is its unpredictability. Any team can win on any given night.

While I’m sure the Minutemen will have some surprising, uplifting wins over nationally-ranked teams this year, they will be few and far between unless they get some stand-out individual performances from their experienced upperclassmen or their bevy of young talent.

As coach Cahoon likes to say, “In the end, the cream will rise to the top.”

Steve Levine can be reached at [email protected]