Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Ames: If first four games are any indicator, this UMass hockey season could differ for the better

(Caroline O’Connor/Daily Collegian)

The sample size has been small, but the Massachusetts hockey team already appears to have turned a corner.

Through four games, UMass holds a 3-1 record—two wins shy of its five total from last season—with things looking good all throughout the Minutemen lineup.

Freshman forward John Leonard has sprung out of the gates for UMass, recording a point in all four contests. In the Minutemen’s 3-1 victory over American International Oct. 14, Leonard, born and raised in Amherst, scored two goals and added an assist in what was No. 9’s best outing so far in 2017-18.

National Hockey League draft picks Cale Makar (Colorado Avalanche) and Mario Ferraro (San Jose Sharks), have instantly solidified a Minutemen blueline that allowed 3.67 goals-per-game a year ago.

Matt Murray, the freshman goaltender out of St. Albert, Alberta, seems to be adjusting seamlessly to the college hockey game as he’s earned two wins in his first two starts in goal for UMass.

Newcomers Oliver Chau, Mitchell Chaffee and Niko Rufo—a graduate transfer from Providence—each look like viable additions to a Minutemen club that is counting on contributions from all throughout their lineup, but most notably their 13 freshmen, in Greg Carvel’s follow-up campaign as UMass’ head coach.

In what can only be described as a dreadful 2016-17 slate, expectations are fairly high for this up-and-coming Minutemen bunch this season.

And they should be.

UMass arguably boasts the best player in all of Division I hockey in Makar, a great complementary piece on the backend in Ferraro, three forward lines that do not feature a large gap in talent and two goalies who have performed admirably for the Minutemen in the early-goings of the year.

Now, it wouldn’t be fair to assume UMass can all of a sudden compete for the Hockey East Association championship with the likes of Boston University, Providence and Northeastern. However, a reasonable bump up in the win column, say 15-16 wins, looks like a real possibility for the Minutemen.

Again, four games have only been played, but UMass’ compete level and decision-making abilities feel much improved.

In the Minutemen’s 5-4 win over Union on Oct. 13, UMass dominated the Dutchmen for the first 20 minutes, controlling the pace of play for almost the entire period.

It was an unfamiliar site as the Minutemen routinely found themselves on the receiving end of that stick just last season. Granted, Union seems to have fallen from what it once was as the Dutchmen are still searching for their first win, yet the point still remains:

UMass hockey will warrant your attention this year.

Given the losing culture that has surrounded the Minutemen for so long, this year could be just what UMass needs to start building the program up to national relevancy.

The results could very well turn south because of the large amount of underclassmen on the lineup not having much experience of the rigors of college hockey, but luckily for the Minutemen, they really don’t have any direction to go but up.

With Notre Dame’s departure to the Big Ten conference, the Hockey East playoff structure changed as well. Going back to its playoff structure from 2014, the top five seeds in the league will receive a bye, leaving the six, seven and eight seeds with home-ice advantage in the first round.

Should UMass continue its current winning ways, or just maintain a consistent product on the ice, qualifying for one of those next three playoff spots to secure a playoff game at the Mullins Center for the first time since 2006-07, isn’t as big of a reach as it once was.

The Minutemen still have a long way to go in restoring themselves as a persistent, passable hockey team, but considering the current crop of players combined with an ignorance-is-bliss attitude, UMass could surprise its competition, and itself for that matter, with a turnaround 2017-18 year.

Ryan Ames can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @_RyanAmes.

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