GUT-WRENCHING: UMass hockey’s season ends with last-minute loss to Vermont in Hockey East playoffs

By Nick Canelas

Connor Brickley's goal with 1:07 remaining lifted Vermont to a 2-1 win over UMass in the Hockey East playoffs Friday night, ending the Minutemen's season. (Photo by Cade Belisle/Collegian)
Connor Brickley’s goal with 1:07 remaining lifted Vermont to a 2-1 win over UMass in the Hockey East playoffs Friday night, ending the Minutemen’s season. (Photo by Cade Belisle/Collegian)

BURLINGTON, Vt. — All season long, the Massachusetts hockey team found the worst possible ways to lose.

First, there was Connor Leen’s overtime winner in Orono, Maine, to bury the the Minutemen on Oct. 25.

Then, there was offsides gate on Nov. 14, when Troy Power’s game-tying goal against Boston College in the third period was disallowed after his goal was overturned following a review that legally should’ve never happened.

Then there was the shootout loss to Quinnipiac in the semifinal of the UConn Hockey Classic on Dec. 29, the disappointment against lowly American International despite a 59-18 shot advantage on Jan. 14 and, of course, Joe Houk’s game-winner with less than a second left in regulation to lift UMass Lowell over the Minutemen on Feb. 8.

On Friday night, UMass saved its most gut-wrenching defeat for last.

Connor Brickley scored a goal with one minute, seven seconds left in regulation on a shot that went under the pad of goaltender Steve Mastalerz and trickled into the back of the net, to lead No. 15 Vermont to a dramatic 2-1 win in a single-elimination, opening-round game in the Hockey East Tournament.

The loss ended UMass’ 2013-14 season and the careers of its nine seniors, who ended their tenures without a playoff win.

“Goals like that put you down,” a tear-filled Conor Sheary said. “Even though it was that late in the game, we still had a minute left. But a goal that goes in barely and you think you’re playing all right – it’s a confidence booster for them and it puts us down a little bit.”

Anthony DeCenzo played the puck down the left side and came behind the goal line. As he went around the net, Mastalerz moved to his right to play the potential wraparound bid. DeCenzo instead fed Brickley coming down the left wing with Colin Shea coming down defensively.

Brickley quickly threw the puck on net, forcing Mastalerz to go from one end to the other.

But Mastalerz couldn’t get there fast enough as the puck went under his pad and slowly found the back of the net, bringing the 2,823 fans at Gutterson Fieldhouse from gasps of anxiety into relentless euphoria.

As the puck crossed the goal line, Mastalerz fell to his knees, held his blocker across his body with two hands and stared in disbelief.

“I don’t remember what happened,” Mastalerz said. “I look back and I see the puck trickle over the goal line. It was just something quick that happened. I don’t know. I lost track of it.

“I think after it sunk in a little more. I still don’t think it has,” Mastalerz later added. “That’s Hockey East. It’s that close every single night. It sucks the way it had to end.”

UMass had the play well-covered defensively, putting pressure on the Catamount forwards in the defensive zone, but going from one post to another made it difficult on Mastalerz (24 saves). UMass coach John Micheletto couldn’t fault his goaltender after the game.

“Any goal that ends your season is going to wind up being a heartbreaker,” Micheletto said. “The difficult thing is we got pretty good coverage on both goals. … The disappointing thing is you’d like to see it be a huge defensive breakdown and something you could say, ‘We should’ve been better there.’

“That’s the game of inches that happens at this time of year.”

Despite the late goal, the Minutemen still had over a minute with the extra-attacker to try to tie the game and nearly did so when Michael Pereira led a 2-on-1 with Frank Vatrano, but his pass to the redshirt freshman with an open net in front hit a UVM stick.

UMass was outshot 26-19 for the game and 8-4 in the third period.

“We couldn’t get anything going in the third period,” Sheary said. “I thought they took the third period from us.”

The Minutemen’s best chance of the game came shorthanded on a 2-on-1 break led by Sheary, who fed Adam Phillips in front, but his shot was robbed by Brody Hoffman, who moved quickly from right to left and made a highlight reel save with his glove.

After a scoreless first period, Power put UMass ahead with an even strength goal 2:40 into the second period off a rebound goal in front. Steven Iacobellis won a face-off in the offensive zone, possessed the puck and brought around the goal.

Iacobellis fired a backhanded shot that Hoffman (18 saves) stopped with the pad. The sophomore goalie then stopped a rebound attempt by Sheary before Power finished with the second effort to put the Minutemen up 1-0.

UMass dominated a majority of the second period, led by four shots from Sheary and a pair of chances from Vatrano, including one off a turnover.

But Vermont tied the game when Mike Paliotta ripped a point shot past Mastalerz at 17:18. The Minutemen won the offensive-zone draw, but UVM’s Jake Fallon forced the turnover in the defensive zone and led the rush. Fallon fed Paliotta at the point and the junior fired a rocket into the back of the net to make it 1-1 after two periods.

UMass couldn’t put through the ever-important second goal in a physical third period and went home with another disappointing end to a season. The Minutemen haven’t won a playoff game since 2009.

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