I can’t help but look back to this time last year after a game like Saturday night’s.
It was a mystery every week: Kevin Boyle or Steve Mastalerz? Who’s going to get the start in goal for the Massachusetts hockey team?
Things are much different this year. Boyle is gone after being cut last spring and Mastalerz is the clear No. 1 between the pipes. The junior has risen to the occasion too. Through nine games Mastalerz has a 2.39 goals against average, a .925 save percentage and has masked the Minutemen’s ongoing struggles on defense. He’s also been the best penalty killer on a team that as of Sunday has 162 penalty minutes in 10 games this season.
But what happens when Mastalerz can’t play one night?
The 4,284 spectators at Mullins Center got a taste of that on Saturday. And let’s just say you won’t find this flavor on The Phantom Gourmet anytime soon.
UMass lost 9-0 to New Hampshire. Yes, you read it correctly. The Minutemen allowed nine goals in one contest, more than they had given up in the last three games combined.
Freshman Alex Wakaluk got his second start of the season for UMass and only lasted 22 minutes, 26 seconds after allowing five goals on just 10 UNH shots.
The Wildcats wasted no time exposing the rookie, either. Tyler Kelleher scored a goal on a rebound 59 seconds into the game and UNH never looked back. The Wildcats beat Wakaluk blocker side on all five goals and put any hype surrounding the former Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League MVP temporarily on hold.
Then came Mac Haight who, in a perfect world, shouldn’t have even seen the ice for UMass this season. The freshman gave up four goals on 23 shots with the first one he allowed coming less than two minutes into his entry into the contest.
With most of Haight’s 19 saves, particularly the 11 in the second period, came a sarcastic cheer from the faithful who stayed to watch the massacre. And Micheletto even offered his sympathies on behalf his lifeless squad.
“I’d like to thank the people that stayed til the very end who are UMass fans. I apologize to everybody else in the building,” he said. “That was not indicative of the way that we aspire to play and represent our fans and our university. So there’s a blanket apology for all those people.”
But Micheletto wasn’t ready to put the blame on his backup goalies for Saturday’s disaster, either.
“I’d be more concerned about the play of the five guys in front of him, they certainly didn’t allow either of our goaltenders tonight to have much success when we defended and transitioned the way that we did,” he said. “So I hate to hang that one on either, especially Alex in the early going, but the four that we gave up to Mac when he came in as well.
“I’m confident in the guys that we have and if we play the game the way that we’re supposed to play then we’re not gonna be giving up opportunities like we did in the first period.”
Micheletto is right to blame the entire team out there. They looked uninspired for the entire game. However, Wakaluk has now allowed 11 goals in 62 minutes, 26 seconds of playing time for his career. Only so much of that blame can be placed on everyone else.
If there were any doubts about Mastalerz’s value to the Minutemen, he erased them all simply by not dressing.
He instills confidence in a lackluster defensive corps – and oftentimes bails them out for taking too many penalties or making bad turnovers for the sake of more offensive opportunities. He makes the saves he’s supposed to make. He makes saves that most goalies can’t make. If he had played on Saturday, there’s no doubt in my mind the game would’ve been much different.
Micheletto, of course, wasn’t in the mood to go there.
“That’s tough for me to speculate on,” he said. “We don’t cover a guy standing three feet away from (Wakaluk) on a shot from the point and we force him to go more than post-to-post on two successive 2-on-1 opportunities.
“Obviously Steve’s been playing well, but I wouldn’t want any goaltender to be in that situation with four of the first five shots he faces to be under duress.”
Micheletto had little to share on the status of Mastalerz, who he said suffered an undisclosed injury toward the end of the second period of Friday’s game that progressively got worse as the game went on. Mastalerz did, however, stay in for the rest of that game.
Mastalerz met with a doctor between the first and second period on Saturday, according to Micheletto, so it is uncertain what his status will be for next weekend’s home-and-home series with Boston College. But it certainly doesn’t play in UMass’ favor that the first game is on a Thursday.
If Mastalerz can’t go next weekend, things have the potential to get even uglier. The Eagles have one of the top five offenses in the nation led by reigning Hockey East Player of the Year Johnny Gaudreau and will probably be itching to get a chance to replicate what the Wildcats did on Saturday night.
There really is no other option for the Minutemen right now. If Mastalerz can’t play for an extended period of time, expect to see more nights like we saw on Saturday, because the freshmen appear to have a long way to go before they’re ready to handle the big stage.
Last year’s goalie competition sure seemed like a problem at the time. But it sure looks like it was a good problem to have right now.
Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.