Saturday night served as one last hurrah for the seniors on the Massachusetts hockey team.
With the playoffs out of the picture, the Minutemen (12-19-3, 9-16-2 Hockey East Association) sent their four seniors –Rocco Carzo, Kevin Czepiel, Eddie Olczyk and Darren Rowe –out on a high note, putting together one of their most complete efforts in a 3-0 win over Merrimack in front of 4,516 fans at the Mullins Center.
“I’m really thankful for my teammates tonight and allowing us four seniors to go out like this,” Czepiel said. “The whole night was really special and something I’ll never forget.”
Heading into the final 20 minutes of the season, UMass played inspired hockey, not allowing the Warriors (15-15-6, 13-11-3 HEA) to inch their way back into the contest. Sophomore Steve Mastalerz completed the shutout, stopping all 24 Merrimack shots and sending the senior class out strong.
“It’s unbelievable to end on the note that I did personally,” Olczyk said fighting back tears. “The coaching staff, from day one, did a great job of giving guys an opportunity to prove what they can do for this team and I’m just really happy to have been a part of such a great university over the course of my time here.”
Olczyk was unable to play due to a shoulder injury he suffered Friday night. But all four seniors ended their careers having career-best seasons in point production and playing time.
“Special group,” UMass coach John Micheletto said. “Obviously, they’ll hold a special place in my heart. The first senior class is the guys that helped with my transition here.”
Adam Phillips got Senior Night off to a strong start 5 minutes, 8 seconds into the opening period. The junior forward received a backhanded, spin-o-rama feed from Carzo and one-timed it into an empty net to give the Minutemen the 1-0 advantage.
“I just threw it in front,” Carzo said. “I just grabbed it and I was just trying to throw it in front and luckily it found Adam (Phillips). I gift-wrapped it for him.”
Shortly after the goal, UMass suffered a blow to its defense when sophomore Mike Busillo was ejected from the game for a contact to the head penalty, putting Merrimack on a five-minute advantage.
Following two straight successful penalty kills, the Minutemen added an insurance marker with Conor Sheary cleaning up a rebound off a Branden Gracel shot to give UMass a 2-0 advantage heading into the first intermission.
“To be able to regroup and come out with the effort that we had and the execution that we had was really heartwarming,” Micheletto said.
The Minutemen continued to press forward, with junior defenseman Colin Shea getting in on the scoring mix 13:02 into the second period. Shea’s shot from the point deflected off a Warrior stick and beat goalie Sam Marotta over his shoulder to put UMass ahead 3-0 after 40 minutes of play.
The season-ending win is one that UMass is already using as motivation and momentum looking ahead to the 2013-14 campaign.
“We talk about the seniors a lot and it’s awesome to get them a win,” Sheary said. “But definitely it sounds weird to have momentum into next year because it’s so far away, but playing like that in front of a good crowd on our home ice and coming out and competing and beating a pretty good team is huge for our team next year.”
Sheary went on to add that watching other teams play in the playoffs is going to be tough. This is the first time in 10 seasons that UMass failed to make the postseason.
This year’s four seniors left a lasting impression on their teammates, the coaching staff and the program, so for them to go out on a winning note is something that Micheletto is happy to see.
“My hats off to (the team) and obviously to our seniors who have done an unbelievable job for the program, as well as for us, this season,”he said.
Patrick Strohecker can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @MDC_Strohecker.