Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass hockey seeks redemption from disappointing finish last year in 2013-14 season

Nicole Evangelista/Daily Collegian

The way last season ended still sits with the Massachusetts hockey team.

The Minutemen finished the 2012-13 season with just two wins in their final 10 games and failed to make the Hockey East Tournament for the first time since 2002. They were inconsistent, blew six third-period leads and had little scoring contributions outside the top forward line of Michael Pereira, Branden Gracel and Conor Sheary.

Now UMass comes into this season, which begins Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Boston University, motivated by its failures and focused on redeeming itself after a bitter end to last year.

“Being one of the only two teams not to play in March is definitely something that leaves a sour taste in your mouth,” Pereira said. “It was almost embarrassment. Everyone doesn’t want that to happen again and we want to go out on a good note so I think we’re all pushing toward that.”

Pereira is one of nine seniors and 16 upperclassmen on the Minutemen’s roster, so many of these players experienced last year’s disappointing finish. And these same players are all unsatisfied and looking forward for a chance to start fresh.

“It was a long offseason for us especially since we didn’t make the playoffs last year and I think that makes us even hungrier to be back and on the ice,” said Gracel, who led UMass with 34 points on 14 goals and 20 assists as a junior last season.

“It definitely fuels the fire and it’s gotta be in the back of our mind. We can’t really be worried about it, but it’s gotta be there and help us realize that last year we were that close but didn’t make it.”

The Minutemen return their top three leading scorers from last year, its starting goaltender in junior Steve Mastalerz and is an all-around more experienced team under second-year coach John Micheletto. However, expectations aren’t much higher for this year’s squad.

UMass was picked to finish 10th out of 11 teams in the Hockey East preseason poll, the second straight year the Minutemen were picked to finish second-to-last in the rankings. While UMass does have the benefit of every team making the playoffs this season due to the addition of Notre Dame to the conference, the Minutemen would like nothing more than to heavily exceed those expectations.

“I think it’s something that gets us going and gets us excited,” Gracel said. “We want to prove them wrong. Since I’ve been here with my class we’ve always been picked to be at the lower end of the standings and it’s a chance to prove everybody wrong. We all believe inside the locker room so we gotta change everybody else’s minds.”

Much of the criticism is likely due to UMass’ lack of scoring depth and numerous uncertainties throughout the roster.

Gracel, Sheary and Pereira registered 35 percent of the Minutemen’s points last season. And with the trio skating together at nearly all times, goals were hard to come by when they weren’t on the ice.

Instead, UMass will look to regular second and third line players, including Troy Power, who is returning as a redshirt junior after suffering a season-ending knee injury last November. The Minutemen will also look for promising newcomers such as freshman Steven Iacobellis, who scored a goal and an assist in the team’s Maroon & White scrimmage on Sunday, to pick up the slack and alleviate some pressure off the top line.

“Depth in scoring is a key,” Micheletto said. “You can’t be a one-line team, a one-trick pony in this league. Credit to Mike and Conor and Branden last year because they did carry the bulk of it while being targeted by other teams.”

The question marks go well beyond the forwards, though. With Conor Allen signing with the New York Rangers in the offseason and Darren Rowe graduating, senior Joel Hanley is the lone consistently reliable option returning on the defensive end. Hanley scored 16 points on five goals and 11 assists and finished the year a plus-1.

Then, of course, there’s Mastalerz between the pipes. The junior spent the last two years competing with Kevin Boyle for playing time. But with Boyle gone, he appears to be the clear No. 1 with reigning Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League MVP Alex Wakaluk as his backup as a freshman.

The goaltender still has to prove he can succeed for an entire season, though. Despite a strong finish last year, Mastalerz still ended the year with a 4-8-1 record to go with his 2.96 goals against average and .898 save percentage.

But Micheletto is confident in his goalie, saying, “He’s got experience on his side, which is always a big help…but the thing I wanted him to work on was appreciating how big he is. He doesn’t have to work as hard actively making saves.”

Micheletto also has more familiarity with his players and confidence in his system in Year 2, and expects a winning culture to finally start to develop.

“Coaching is sometimes overrated for the X’s and O’s and not enough credit is given to the group dynamic and making sure that you’re tending to that,” Micheletto said. “Having a year under our belts puts us that much closer to putting the pieces together.”

Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.

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