SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Each player that exited the visiting locker room on Friday night wore the same defeated look on their face as they took in yet another loss. The weight of an eight-game winless streak had become so overbearing for the Massachusetts hockey team that there was no more hiding it.
The moral victories were getting old, and the Minutemen appeared closer and closer to letting their season get away from them before even reaching the midway point.
All it took was a flick of the wrist by Adam Phillips for all that to change.
With the game tied at 2-2 and UMass on the power play with less than three minutes left in regulation, Joel Hanley slid the puck to Phillips at the top of the left circle. Phillips moved back then fired a shot that he said he was just hoping to get on net.
Instead it turned into the biggest goal of his career.
Phillips beat Notre Dame goaltender Steven Summerhays glove side, threw his arms in the air and skated swiftly to center ice in celebration as he was mobbed by his teammates while the rest of the Minutemen’s bench erupted.
With one shot, the weight the size of Touchdown Jesus was lifted off UMass’ shoulders as it earned its first win since Nov. 2 with a 3-2 triumph in front of 5,009 at Compton Family Ice Arena on Saturday night.
“To go ahead in the third period with three minutes left is a pretty special feeling,” co-captain Conor Sheary said. “Adam went pretty crazy and went out to celebrate at center ice and we all just ate it up. We were pretty excited, ready to win.”
Winning is something the Minutemen (4-11-2, 2-7-2 Hockey East) haven’t done much of lately, but one big win has the potential to turn a month of misery in November into good vibes during the holiday season. At least that’s what UMass is hoping for.
“We thought we played some pretty good games in November and things just didn’t go our way,” Sheary said. “We know we need to take that extra step forward and keep working harder and not accept losing. That’s something that we need to build in this program and this one win against a very good team really helps us do that.”
The Minutemen’s biggest downfall in their loss to the Irish on Friday night was their penalty kill, which allowed three Notre Dame power-play goals. Sheary said UMass watched tape before Saturday’s game and adjusted their coverage against Irish in their back-door sets.
The adjustments worked as the Minutemen killed all five Notre Dame power plays, including a 5-on-3 in the first period that led to no quality shots and even produced a 2-on-1 rush for UMass.
“It’s not really anything major other than attention to detail,” UMass coach John Micheletto said of the penalty kill. “Our back fill was much better and our stick position taking away inside passing lane, that puts you in a bad situation when they’re able to pass through the box. Those were two things we kept in our guys’ minds and it kept them out of trouble.”
Of course, no player was better at keeping the Irish (10-7-1, 3-4-1 HEA) out of the net than Steve Mastalerz, who made 33 huge saves for UMass on Friday night and robbed Notre Dame of a pair of goals, including a breakaway bid by Jeff Costello after a turnover by Sheary at the offensive blue line in the third period.
“He was unbelievable,” Sheary said. “He bailed me out on that breakaway, so I gotta thank him.”
Like Friday night, Notre Dame struck first in the game’s first four minutes. Andy Ryan fired a slap shot from the point that Sam Herr redirected right in front to beat Mastalerz and give Notre Dame the early 1-0 lead.
UMass responded with an impressive goal from Branden Gracel at 11:18 on a shot from just above the right circle that sailed past the glove of Summerhays and into the top right corner of the net.
The Minutemen took their first lead of the weekend at 2:27 in the second period when Hanley beat Summerhays with a shot that deflected off a Notre Dame player and into the back of the net to make it 2-1. But the Irish tied it at 2-2 at 18:28 when Vince Hinostroza hit Mario Lucia in the slot with a centering pass and Lucia finished with his third goal of the weekend.
The third period was the only one that UMass outshot the Irish in with an 8-7 edge, but it was enough to get the job done and take the first step in the right direction. One the Minutemen would like to see turn their season around.
“It’s been a while since we’ve won,” Phillips said. “The biggest thing is that we’ve been close a lot and we deserved to win (Saturday) and we finally got rewarded for our hard work.”
Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.