UMass hockey tops Air Force to close out Catamount Cup play

By Anthony Chiusano

Photo by Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian
Photo by Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

The Massachusetts hockey team rebounded Monday against Air Force to split its two-game set in the Catamount Cup following a loss on Sunday to Providence.

Playing in Burlington, Vermont for the second consecutive night, UMass (5-13-0, 1-9-0 Hockey East) defeated the Falcons, 5-1, to halt a five-game losing streak.

The Minutemen attributed their success to two areas which have proven to be inconsistent through most of the first half of the season: sound defense and third period success.

UMass has given up at least eight goals in three separate losses this season, including an 8-3 defeat against Northeastern to close out the first half on Dec. 16. Minutemen coach John Micheletto said that team defense was a major focus heading into Catamount Cup play.

Following Monday’s victory, Micheletto said improvement was evident based on the Minutemen’s play spanning back to Sunday’s performance in a 4-1 loss to No. 16 Providence College.

“I think both nights you saw a much better defensive zone coverage, getting more blocks,” Micheletto said. “I thought our layers were in much better position.”

UMass finished with 16 blocked shots in front of freshman goaltender Henry Dill, providing the netminder with a fairly easy day. Dill finished with 21 saves and one goal allowed.

“We had great energy on our bench,” redshirt sophomore Frank Vatrano said. “We were blocking shots and it was leading to success down in the offensive zone also.”

On offense, the Minutemen capitalized on four unanswered goals, including three in the final period, to clinch their first victory in over a month.

Tied at one goal apiece with 14 minutes, 33 seconds left in the second period, Ray Pigozzi converted on his fourth goal of the season to hand UMass a permanent lead. It was the sophomore’s first score since returning from an upper body injury that sidelined him for three games before Sunday’s matchup against the Friars.

Vatrano started the Minutemen’s third period attack with his 11th goal of the season, an unassisted score off a Falcons’ turnover less than two minutes into the frame. The forward added two assists, bringing his point output over the past seven games to 11.

“Nobody has had a hotter hand than (Vatrano),” Micheletto said. “With his three points tonight, he certainly led the way.”

Along with Pigozzi and freshman Dennis Kravchenko, Vatrano led a forwards line that finished with six points. While Monday was only the second game that Kravchenko played alongside the sophomores, Vatrano said that the linemates’ offensive skills have fared well with each other since the change.

“(Pigozzi) and (Kravchenko) play kind of a similar style of game,” Vatrano said. “We all work really hard especially with our offense and I thought we had a lot of chemistry and success.”

Goals by Kravchenko and freshman Dominic Trento in the final minute of regulation added to a third period outburst that has not been displayed too often over UMass’ first 17 games.

In a season that started with a game against Boston University in which the Minutemen conceded six goals in the final period of an 8-1 loss and featured two unanswered goals allowed in Sunday’s failed comeback attempt against Providence, competing in the third period has become a challenge for UMass.

But with Monday’s 3-0 advantage in the final frame, Micheletto said he hopes it is an indication for future success in closing situations.

“It’s about knowing how to close out games and win games,” Micheletto said. “You have to make sure that you’re grinding teams out with possession and forcing them to play defense for as long as they can.”

“I certainly hope that that goes a long way for us moving forward.”
The Minutemen will have the opportunity to expand on Monday’s success on Jan. 2 when they return to Amherst to play Connecticut at 7 p.m.

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