UMass tops Merrimack 4-1 to cap off successful weekend series

By Ross Gienieczko

(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)
Jake Horton celebrates the first goal of the game scored by freshman forward Dennis Kravchenko. (Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

After playing sporadically and struggling early in the season, senior goaltender Steve Mastalerz turned in a near-perfect performance Sunday afternoon, making 44 saves to lead the Massachusetts hockey team to a 4-1 victory over No. 14 Merrimack.

The pucks – and bodies – came to Mastalerz early and often. He was crashed into several times by Warriors players driving toward the net, took a high stick to the helmet after the whistle and had a one-time bomb sneak its way through his padding and catch him right in the thigh. But throughout the game, Mastalerz stood tall in net. And in a year that’s had more downs than ups for the senior, he was finally credited with his first win of the season.

“It was longer than expected, but I just told myself to keep working hard,” Mastalerz said after the game.

UMass (8-16-1, 3-11-1 Hockey East) coach John Micheletto said it was good for the team to see Mastalerz finally break through.

“Guys are just so fond of (Mastalerz) and know how hard he’s worked over the course of his career,” Micheletto said. “It was heartwarming to see how excited our guys were for him.”

While Mastalerz was the rock defensively, it was freshman center Dennis Kravchenko who fueled the Minutemen on offense.

After a long sequence of power-play time – including one minute, 14 seconds of a five-on-three advantage – Kravchenko finally scored the first goal of the game with just 10 seconds left in the second period, flipping home a rebound off a Jake Horton point shot to give UMass a 1-0 lead.

It was a big momentum swing going into the second intermission and it clearly carried over into the third. Just 59 seconds into the final period, Kravchenko finished off a three-on-two break when senior captain Troy Power found him trailing the play, and after a short review the Minutemen were suddenly up 2-0.

The goals were Kravchenko’s seventh and eighth of the season, tying him with Shane Walsh for second on the team.

While Kravchenko and Mastalerz had the spotlight after the game, they were quick to credit their teammates for their performances as well.

“It’s a whole team win… that’s the only way you can win in this league,” Mastalerz said.

“There’s a lot more happiness in the locker room,” Kravchenko said. “Guys are pulling together and digging in and working on the details and little things.”

For Merrimack (13-8-3, 4-6-2 Hockey East), it was a sloppy night defensively and a frustrating one on offense. Part of that was due to aggressive forechecking from UMass forwards, something Micheletto spoke at length about after the game

“You feed off the energy of the forecheck more than anything else,” Micheletto said. “I thought both Friday as well as (Saturday) we took pucks away or we forced their defenseman to turn back and go south as opposed to going north. That, more than anything, had us continuing to push and step on the gas.”

Despite the pressure in their own zone, the Warriors still found themselves with the puck in shooting areas all night. They peppered Mastalerz with 45 shots on net throughout the game, including 18 in the third period alone. However, the Warriors just couldn’t find ways to finish, especially on the power play.

Facing the 10th-worst penalty kill in the country in UMass, Merrimack was 0-6 with the man advantage, including one crucial stretch early in the second period.

After Keith Burchett was assessed a double minor penalty, Minutemen forward Dominic Trento was called for cross-checking just one minute, five seconds later, setting up a whole two minutes of five-on-three play. But thanks to strong goaltending from Mastalerz and solid work clogging shooting lanes from UMass’ penalty killers, the Warriors were held scoreless and it was a major turning point in the game.

“There’s no question that a big kill on a five-on-three, especially with college-aged kids, is a big momentum boost,” Micheletto said.

Sophomore forward Hampus Gustafsson finally scored with the Merrimack net empty at 18 minutes, 43 seconds of the third, but it was too little too late for the Warriors.

Merrimack will have a quick turnaround after playing Sunday, as they’ll have to travel to Connecticut Tuesday to face the Huskies. The Minutemen return to action Friday when they head to Boston University for a matchup against the No. 3 Terriers.

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