Minutemen prepare for deep, talented Providence team

By Ross Gienieczko

Alec Zabrecky/Daily Collegian
Alec Zabrecky/Daily Collegian

The Massachusetts men’s hockey team’s last chance to salvage its season is only three games away.

The Minutemen have improved to an extent in the second half of the year after a miserable start – and could play the role of spoiler in the Hockey East tournament which begins March 6.

But first, UMass must take on the challenge of facing No. 12 Providence in its final home-and-home series of the year.

At this point in the season, the Minutemen (9-19-2, 4-14-1 Hockey East) are what they are. Exciting and offensively gifted freshmen like Dennis Kravchenko (10 goals, 18 assists in 30 games) and Brandon Montour (3-13-16) have given UMass enough offense to stay in games, but team defense has been a problem all year. The Minutemen rank 58th out of 59 Division I teams in goals against, allowing 4.30 per game.

Goaltenders Henry Dill and Steve Mastalerz have been put in some tough situations this year, but they have struggled as well. Dill’s save percentage has fallen to .871, and Mastalerz’s isn’t much better at .878.

Despite its struggles, though, UMass has improved as the season stretched on. After starting the year 4-13, the Minutemen are 5-6-2 since a Dec. 29 win against Air Force. After slow starts to the season, scoring outbursts from sophomore Frank Vatrano (team leader with 16 goals) and junior Shane Walsh (11) have helped UMass rebound, along with steady contributions from Steven Iacobellis and Patrick Lee, among others.

On the other bench, Providence (18-10-2, 10-7-1 HEA) has been one of the best teams in Hockey East for years and is near the top of the standings again in 2014-2015. One of the main reasons for their recent success has been the play of junior goaltender Jon Gillies, someone UMass coach John Micheletto raved about after practice Tuesday.

“When you start with a guy like Jon Gillies, it obviously allows the guys in front of him to play with a lot of confidence,” Micheletto said. He also talked about the deep roster Friars coach Nate Leaman has put together in front of the All-Hockey East goaltender.

“Coach has done a great job… developing guys and getting them to buy into that style of play,” Micheletto continued. “They play very, very, hard, they’re very disciplined, and they’re usually good on special teams.”

Minutemen captain Troy Power also commented on the hard working style Providence brings to the table.

“They work hard, keep the game simple, and grind you down,” Power said. “They have some talented players that can make some plays as well.

“They’re a very hard working team, a very complete team.”

Taking down the Friars won’t be an easy task for Power and UMass. Led by Gilles and his .933 save percentage, Providence is sixth in the nation in goals against at a stingy 2.03. Offensively, the Friars bring a deep and talented attack. Led by Nick Saracino (10 goals, 17 assists) and Trevor Mingoia (13-13), seven different Providence players have recorded over 15 points on the season.

The Friars 4-1 win against UMass earlier this season in the Catamount Cup was a performance typical of Providence this season. Nine different players recorded points, scoring chances against were limited and Gillies stonewalled the Minutemen with 22 saves on 23 shots.

For Micheletto, though, the key to beating the Friars is for UMass to play its own game.

“If we can play five on five and use our speed and transition to our advantage on offense, and limit odd man rushes with our puck decisions, that’s going to be our best formula for success,” Micheletto said. “Getting to the critical areas and banging home second and third shots will be really critical.”

The first game of the weekend is set for 7 p.m. at Schneider Arena in Providence. Saturday night at Mullins Center is senior night for the Minutemen.

Six UMass players will be honored – captain Troy Power, forwards Zach LaRue and Steven Guzzo, defensemen Oleg Yevenko and Mike Busillo and finally goaltender Steve Mastalerz.

In honor of Yevenko (from Belarus), LaRue and Guzzo (Canada), the Belarusian and Canadian national anthems will be played along in addition to the Star Spangled Banner before the game after a short ceremony honoring the six seniors.

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