Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Chiusano: UMass hockey needs consistent performance from upperclassmen

By Anthony Chiusano

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(Alec Zabrecky/Daily Collegian)

(Alec Zabrecky/Daily Collegian)

Throwing moral victories aside, this past weekend was a disappointment for the Massachusetts hockey team.

Heading into the final leg of an extensive six-game road trip, UMass hoped to leave Orono, Maine on a positive note against the then-winless Black Bears. Playing competitively in each of the two games, this optimistic sendoff was fully plausible.

However, following two straight one-score defeats in highly contrasting situations – a comeback attempt that fell short in overtime on Friday and a blown 2-0 lead on Saturday –UMass returns home on a three-game losing streak and in ninth place within the Hockey East conference (2-5-0, 1-4-0 Hockey East).

For a young team that boasts nine freshmen, the average UMass hockey fan may perceive the team’s early struggles as a result of the Minutemen’s inexperience.

But this hasn’t been the case.

Instead, it’s been the freshmen class who has stepped up and has arguably been the most productive through UMass’ first seven games.

For all the concern before the season about who would replace last season’s senior class that included top scoring threats like Conor Sheary and Branden Gracel, this year’s team has shown visible offensive growth thus far. One of the reasons for this improvement has been the freshmen class’ quick adaptation to the collegiate level of play.

While the 2013 Minutemen finished second-to-last in goals per game, this year’s team is currently situated in the middle of the pack with a 2.71 average. Of their 19 goals, nine have been scored by first-year players.

Freshman Dennis Kravchenko has been at the forefront of UMass’ offensive attack with three goals and five points, both team-highs. His output ranks him eighth nationally in points by a freshman and second in the Hockey East only behind Boston University’s freshman phenom Jack Eichel.

Playing on the top line flanked by fellow freshman Patrick Lee and senior captain Troy Power, Kravchenko was the catalyst over the weekend in the Minutemen’s could-have-been wins, scoring all three of his goals in the two-game set.

Kravchenko’s linemate Lee has also been a key component for the Minutemen, with two goals, including a game-winner with 9.9 seconds left in regulation in UMass’ first win on Oct. 18.

Prior to the regular season, Minutemen coach John Micheletto noted that the nine freshmen brought “a different energy, a different dynamic.” On the first line, Kravchenko and Lee represent this refreshing change and important impact that the underclassmen have had.

With two goals each, Jake Horton, Keith Burchett and sophomores Ray Pigozzi and Steven Iacobellis add to the scoring success and invigorating atmosphere that has carried the Minutemen so far.

But now it is time for UMass’ more experienced pieces to add to what its younger contributors have already set in place.

Despite encouraging performances over the weekend, the Minutemen must find more offensive success from Power and redshirt sophomore Frank Vatrano.

After sitting all of last regular season due to eligibility issues, Vatrano finally showed what makes him the playmaker that drew so much excitement and anticipation, picking up three points in his last three games – including his first career goal Saturday.

Then there’s Power who, coming off a career-high 10 goals his junior season, only recorded three assists through seven games. But, like Vatrano, Power’s points have all come recently – this past weekend – which provides some optimism moving forward.

However, if the Minutemen want to hang around with Hockey East’s elite, these experienced pieces must turn their recent points into more consistent play.

The biggest question for the Minutemen rests in their goaltending situation. After allowing 11 goals in two games, incumbent Steve Mastalerz sat in favor of freshman Henry Dill for the next four games where Dill posted a serviceable 2-2 record.

But after Dill struggled in Friday’s loss, Mastalerz retook his position in the crease and played well, allowing three goals in Saturday’s defeat.

While Dill gave a struggling UMass defense a momentary jolt, it is crucial that Mastalerz returns to the solid form that was prevalent last season for the sake of the Minutemen’s backline, as well as for Dill’s continuing development.

The freshmen have done their part so far this season to keep UMass’ hopes alive of competing in the Hockey East. However, in order to produce results in the win-loss column, it’s the proven group of upperclassmen that must continue to show signs of breaking out.

Anthony Chiusano can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @a_chiusano24.

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