A ‘distinct energy’ surrounds UMass as it opens its season against Boston University

By Ross Gienieczko

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(Alec Zabrecky)

(Alec Zabrecky/Daily Collegian)

The ice at the Mullins Center is set. Skates are sharpened, sticks are taped and home white jerseys look as crisp as they will all year. About 45 minutes before the game starts, both teams will take the ice for warm-ups. As music blares and fans slowly trickle in, the resulting crescendo of noise and energy in the arena can only mean one thing.

It’s hockey season.

That will be the setting Friday night in Amherst, when the Massachusetts hockey team opens its season at 7 p.m. against No. 20 Boston University. After months of preparation, the Minutemen can barely wait to get started.

“There’s a lot of energy (within the team),” said UMass coach John Micheletto, who is back for his third season coaching the Minutemen and 24th year coaching hockey. “It makes coming to the rink fun, not only for the coaching staff, but for the players. That’s contagious.”

It’s been a long but productive offseason for UMass since its season-ending defeat against Vermont in the first round of the Hockey East tournament. After losing their top three scorers to graduation, the Minutemen will reload with a freshman class of nine players, many of whom are expected to step in right away.

“We’re going to need (the freshmen) to be productive and be solid contributors from the get-go,” Micheletto said.

Several young players are primed to do just that.

Freshman Dennis Kravchenko will likely start the season on UMass’ top line alongside captain Troy Power and sophomore Frank Vatrano. Kravchenko has impressed thus far, scoring twice in an exhibition against Dalhousie on Saturday.

Vatrano isn’t a freshman, but is still a new addition to the Minutemen lineup. He sat for all but one game last season due to eligibility issues after transferring from Boston College, but already figures to be a top offensive producer for UMass.

“(Vatrano’s) a name that’s going to pop up in the score sheet an awful lot,” Micheletto said.

Fellow freshman Patrick Lee – from Calgary, Alberta – also earned himself a top-six spot early. He’s played alongside sophomores Ray Pigozzi and Steven Iacobellis on the second line for UMass. Pigozzi and Iacobellis return after combining for 39 points last season.

Together, the top two lines will be relied on to replace the production of last season’s top three scorers – Conor Sheary, Michael Pereira and Brandon Gracel. All three graduated, and together they accounted for 43 percent of goals scored by the Minutemen. It’s a void that Power said would not be filled by one line.

“We need scoring from everyone, all four lines and defensemen,” Power said. “In the past, we’ve been kind of top heavy as far as our contributions offensively went. If we want to be the team we expect to be, (offense) is going to have to come from everyone.”

Micheletto agreed, and echoed Power’s message of balance.

“If you look at our last two years, we relied on those guys so much,” Micheletto said. “This year, it’s about balancing that offensive production over the course of at least three lines of forwards.”

In their defensive zone, UMass is led by 6-foot-7 senior Oleg Yevenko, a defensive stalwart for the Minutemen over the last three seasons. The stay-at-home defenseman is a vocal, physical presence on the blue line, and Micheletto said the team is counting on him to play shutdown minutes against the opposition’s top scorers.

“When he’s on his game, he’s really effective at keeping offensive players chances to a minimum,” Micheletto said. “Defense is going to be first in his vocabulary.”

Fellow defensemen Mike Busillo, Mark Hetnik and Ben Gallacher will also play important roles for the defensive corps. Midway through the season, UMass will add top recruit and Anaheim Ducks second round pick Brandon Montour to their defense. He’ll play junior hockey for the Waterloo Blackhawks of the USHL until he becomes eligible in December.

Through it all, UMass will be backstopped by experienced senior goaltender Steve Mastalerz.

“He’s our rock,” Power said of Mastalerz. “He’s going to be a big part of this team’s success.”

Starting in net for all eight of the team’s wins last season, Mastalerz saw a lot of pucks flying his way, but still posted a save percentage of .907. He had two shutouts and made 30 or more saves 11 times, and will be counted on again to provide strong play in net.

BU enters the contest ranked No. 20 in the country, and is expected to be one of the top teams in Hockey East after a down season last year. The Terriers are led by Robbie Baillargeon, who returns after leading the team with 27 points last year, and other top scorers Ahti Oskanen and Danny O’Regan will also be back. Despite the talent returning up front, the spotlight will be on another player for the Terriers – freshman forward and Massachusetts native Jack Eichel. Expected to be a top pick in next year’s NHL entry draft – many scouts project he’ll go No.1  overall – Eichel is a dynamic presence and already notched Hockey East Rookie of the Week honors after assisting on five goals in BU’s season-opening exhibition against St. Thomas.

The Terriers represent a daunting challenge to open the season, and Micheletto said that UMass needs to focus on playing its own game rather than sit and react against BU.

“We want to make sure that we’re the best version of UMass that we can be,” Micheletto said. “We want to play fast. We want to take pucks away. We want to try to play in transition offensively as much as possible.”

The stage is set. Final adjustments are being made. And nobody is more excited for the start of the season than the Minutemen.

“There’s a distinct energy in the room and on the ice,” Micheletto said. “We’re eager to strap on the helmets on Friday and see how it all comes out.”

 

Ross Gienieczko can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @RossGien.