Nowhere to hide for UMass in Hockey East

By Patrick Strohecker

Maria Uminski/Collegian

College hockey is a grind, playing one, sometimes two, ranked opponents every weekend.

The Massachusetts hockey team has found that out the hard way.

Entering its fourth weekend of the season, the Minutemen (1-3, 0-3 Hockey East Association) have already played three teams ranked within the Top 20, with two more ranked opponents on the schedule for this weekend.

After opening up the season with a 4-1 win against Connecticut, UMass has dropped three straight games to No. 3 Boston College and two games last weekend to No. 13 Boston University, but must now prepare for No. 9 New Hampshire (4-0-1, 2-0-1 HEA) to visit Friday and then hit the road to take on the top-ranked Eagles (4-1, 4-1 HEA) on Sunday afternoon.

“There’s not a lot of easy games in this league,” UMass coach John Micheletto said.  “If you take anybody across the country too lightly, you’re in for a rough night.  In some regard, it forces your guys to be mentally sharp in the early goings.”

Whether the five straight games against ranked opponents is a coincidence or not, the Minutemen certainly have not done themselves any favors early on, dropping the first three games all to conference opponents.

With both opponents this weekend also being Hockey East foes, UMass is certainly eager to obtain its first conference points of the season, but the early-season tests is something that the team knows will help it later in the season.

“Obviously playing the tougher teams in the beginning and then playing them later in the season, to already have some experience playing against them, is definitely good,” sophomore goalie Kevin Boyle said.

However, this type of schedule is not uncommon for teams, especially within the Hockey East. The Hockey East is arguably the toughest conference in the country, with five teams currently ranked in the Top 20 of the U.S. College Hockey Organization polls.

The winless conference record is not a clear depiction of how this year’s Minutemen team have played thus far. In two of the team’s three defeats, they’ve held a lead against its opponent.

In its 5-4 overtime loss to BC, UMass led, 3-0, heading into the third period, before surrendering four third period goals and then the eventual game-winner in overtime. Following a 5-2 loss at Agganis Arena last Friday against the Terriers (3-1, 3-1 HEA), the Minutemen jumped out to a 2-0 lead against BU the following night before giving up the eventual game-winning goal with one minute, 22 seconds remaining in the third period to lose another close contest.

If the Minutemen held onto both of those multi-goal leads, UMass could head into the weekend with a 3-1 record rather than it being reversed.

The competiveness of the team has not gone unnoticed to Micheletto.

“In the early going, you’ve seen what we want to be as a team and what we have in the locker room,” Micheletto said. “It’s not happening every shift of every game right now and I know that’s frustrating for everybody. The important thing in the process is that we see what we can be and we’re striving to be that all the time.”

Everyone knew that the defending national champion Eagles would be a force to be reckoned with this season, but the undefeated Wildcats have caught a lot of teams by surprise in the early going.

UNH was picked to finish fourth in the conference preseason poll, but with its two returning scorers back in Nick Sorkin and Kevin Goumas, the Wildcats have scored 17 goals in five games, while only surrendering nine.

“UNH has been hot,” Micheletto said. “They obviously felt that they’ve had something to prove because they’ve not typically been a great team getting out of the gates, so they’ve really focused on their early season this year and it’s proven to play dividends.”

The Minutemen have proven early on this season that it can compete with the nation’s top teams. A win, or two, against two more this weekend could certainly give the team some much needed confidence going forward.

Patrick Strohecker can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @MDC_Strohecker.