Mac Haight’s relationship with Steve Mastalerz dates further back than being teammates on the Massachusetts hockey team this season.
According to Haight, the two goaltenders first met six years ago through goalie coach Mike Buckley, who is now the goalie development coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins, when the two were at prep school.
The goalies stayed in contact with one another following that first meeting. Even while Haight was in juniors when Mastalerz was at UMass the last two years, Mastalerz was always there to give advice.
That sort of influence helped him make his decision to join the Minutemen as a recruited walk-on this season.
“It was nice to come in and know someone like Steve to help me out,” Haight said. “Because I knew he was gonna help me out through the season and get me into that next level to be ready for college hockey.”
Haight came into the year knowing his role was going to be limited. He started the year as the third-string goalie behind Mastalerz and fellow freshman Alex Wakaluk. And with the way Mastalerz was playing to start the season, the chances of him seeing ice time this season looked slim.
“I knew I was gonna play behind (Mastalerz) because he’s quite the goalie,” Haight said. “I knew coming in here that my role was just to be whatever the team needed me to be.”
That all changed when Mastalerz suffered an injury against New Hampshire on Nov. 8 and Wakaluk struggled to replace him. Suddenly, the Minutemen needed him to be the starter against Boston College’s top-ranked offense in the nation.
Haight said it was a situation he could’ve never imagined himself in this season, but he exceeded all expectations, allowing just four goals in two games while helping the Minutemen earn a point against the Eagles last weekend, earning him Hockey East Rookie of the Week honors.
“It’s incredible for him to be coming in as a third string and putting on a performance like that for us,” senior forward Conor Sheary said. “It’s awesome to see for him and for us as a team it definitely gives us some energy and we wanna play for him.”
Mastalerz returned to the ice for practice this week for the Minutemen, but his availability for this weekend’s series against Vermont, which comes to Mullins Center on Friday at 7 p.m. for the first of a home-and-home series, is still a mystery.
UMass coach John Micheletto said they will give it a try at practice, but whether or not he’ll be ready to play this weekend will ultimately be up to the doctors. If Mastalerz is forced to miss a second straight weekend, Micheletto will at least be comfortable with what he has in Haight.
“His mental preparation was good, he came out with the same energy, attacked pucks and I think our guys had a real level of comfort there in the early going that he was gonna settle in and give us a good game,” Micheletto said.
Like the Minutemen (3-7-2, 1-4-2 Hockey East), the Catamounts have battled some injuries between the pipes as well. UVM was without starter Brody Hoffman early in the season, leaving it up to freshman Mike Santaguida – 2.69 goals against average, .908 save percentage – to carry the load through the first month.
With Hoffman back in the lineup, the Catamounts are back into a regular rotation, with each netminder getting a start in the last two weekends. So UMass is planning to see both this weekend.
“We’re not at any point where we can focus on one goaltender against these guys this weekend,” Micheletto said. “We need to prepare to see both of them.”
And while UVM (3-5-1, 2-4 HEA) doesn’t have the name or the accolades that a program like BC has and has lost four of its last five games, the Minutemen are stressing the importance that this week’s conference opponent is just as important as last week’s.
“You can’t take a team lightly just because of the name on the front of their jersey,” Sheary said. “Every team is gonna give us a hard battle in this league and we just gotta be prepared for everyone.”
Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.