UMass set for weekend series with Merrimack

By Jason Kates

Photo by Cade Belisle
Photo by Cade Belisle

Last weekend, the Massachusetts hockey team split a home-and-home with New Hampshire to win just their second game in Hockey East conference play all season.

This weekend, the Minutemen will look to move out of last place in Hockey East when they take on No. 15 Merrimack College in another home-and-home split.

UMass (7-16-0, 2-11 Hockey East), which has struggled in conference play, remains just three points behind UNH for 10th place and six points behind Connecticut and Northeastern for the final spot in the Hockey East tournament.

With just five of the remaining 10 games this season at home, coach John Micheletto looks at every game with equal importance. But he knows playing well at Mullins Center is crucial, especially as the regular season nears its conclusion.

“I think we look at it like we don’t care if the games are on our home ice or on the road,” he said. “Obviously we want to play well in front of our fans and treat them to our best hockey, but anywhere that we can get points is really important for us.”

Frank Vatrano, a redshirt sophomore who leads the team with 12 goals and 21 total points, agreed.

“I think we need to take advantage of those points at home,” he said. “It’s in front of our home crowd so you kind of have the advantage there, but we’re looking to win every game we’re playing down the stretch.

“It’s definitely important for us to get those wins, especially where we are in the standings. We need every point we can get.”

Merrimack, which enters this weekend after sweeping then No. 12 Quinnipiac in a two-game series, is home to one of the smallest rinks in the conference, which can pose a threat to visiting teams.

Micheletto knows the rink will be a factor on Friday night, especially after playing in one of the league’s biggest rinks last weekend.

“Our last game will have been on the biggest sheet in the league at UNH, and going to one of the smaller rinks will be a transition for us. We’re talking about it, as well as doing some things at practice to try and make sure we’re best prepared to handle that downsize.”

Despite this adjustment, Vatrano believes his team will be able to handle the transition.

“Skating there on Friday morning for pregame skate, we’re going to have to know the bounces of the boards and what kind of surroundings we have and how close we are to the net, so we’re going to have to pay close attention to that,” he said.

This matchup will feature a glaring contrast defensively, with the Warriors ranked second in the conference in goals against while the Minutemen are ranked last. Led by senior goaltender Rasmus Tirronen, Merrimack is allowing just 1.95 goals per game, compared to UMass’ average of 4.26 goals against per game.

With the amount of talent the Warriors have defensively, Micheletto believes his team will have to do several things if they want to breakthrough and get on the scoreboard.

“We’ve got to get on the inside, that’s not unlike any other team,” he said. “If we’re going to play on the perimeter, you’re not going to score a whole lot of goals on (Rasmus) Tirronen, who has established himself as one of the really good goaltenders in our league.”

“If we can get second or third shot opportunities inside the dots, that’ll be really important against them.”

The Minutemen will head to Merrimack Friday at 7 p.m. for the first matchup between the two teams. The series will return to Amherst Saturday night, with puck drop also scheduled for 7 p.m.

Jason Kates can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Jason_Kates.