The Massachusetts hockey team secured its third win of the season on Saturday night, with a 3-1 win over American International at the Mullins Center.
In the 2017-18 home opener, UMass defeated the Yellow Jackets (0-4-1, 0-2-1 Atlantic Hockey League) thanks, in large part, to the stellar play of freshman forward John Leonard.
Leonard led the Minutemen (3-1-0) while on the top offensive line, alongside redshirt senior Niko Rufo and freshman Philip Lagunov, with two goals and an assist in the victory.
The Amherst native’s second goal proved to be the dagger as it came with just 2:39 to go in the third period.
It was fun to have all my family and friends here,” Leonard said. “I had a lot of buddies from high school come down, so it was really nice to be home.”
UMass coach Greg Carvel had high praise for Leonard following his first of many showings at the Mullins.
“He was the best forward out on the ice [tonight], I don’t even think it was close; and that’s a freshman,” Carvel said. “He’s powerful, strong and he’s an elite goal scorer as you saw.”
In front of the home-town crowd, the 5-foot-11, 190-pounder really showed up to play and made a solid case to continue starting on the first line moving forward.
To start the season, Carvel placed Leonard on the fourth line and didn’t have him as a part of the first power play group.
But after his first collegiate goal and seeing him perform in game scenarios last weekend in Arizona, Carvel bumped the freshman up to the Minutemen top-line and started giving him looks on the man-advantage.
“We wanted to start him to show him the respect that he deserves,” Carvel said. “But, he’s a first line player, he’s earned it.”
Leonard’s first goal on the night came at 13:27 of the first and put UMass ahead 2-0 after freshman Oliver Chau scored the game’s first goal roughly five minutes prior. Chau and standout defensemen, Cale Makar, had the assists.
After AIC scored a goal midway through the third to keep things close, the Minutemen needed a tally to create some much-needed breathing room with the clock ticking down.
At 17:21, Leonard found himself moving down the right side who then fired a rocket into the Yellow Jackets cage to put UMass ahead 3-1.
“It felt good,” Leonard said. “Honestly, I don’t know how I got that 2-on-1 but it kind of just squared out to the middle and I got to it. I saw the corner and tried to shoot for it.”
Leonard also expressed a sense of growth with his Minutemen line mates on Saturday night.
“We’re starting to build some really good chemistry, with Lagunov and Rufo, so we just got to keep moving forward and keep working hard,” Leonard, who leads UMass with seven points, said.
Carvel likes what he’s seen out of Leonard through the early-goings of the season, but the second-year coach is still pushing for his first-line right-winger to do more.
We’re challenging him to be more than a goal-scorer and he’s already started to check better,” Carvel said. “He’s creative and he’s a good kid, a really good kid, just trying his best.”
UMass will be back in action next weekend as it hosts back-to-back matchups with Big Ten opponent, Ohio State.
Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. on Friday and 8 p.m. on Saturday.
Liam Flaherty can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @_LiamFlaherty.