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: UMass hockey’s turnaround is real, and it’s happening now

(Caroline O’Connor/ Daily Collegian)

Greg Carvel’s winning culture is beginning to take shape in Amherst.

With nine wins and three Hockey East Association victories, the Massachusetts hockey team is successfully erasing any and all memories of an atrocious 2016-17 campaign — one in which the Minutemen won just five contests.

Fast forward to this past fall, and the excitement around UMass was evident with Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro bringing much of the buzz.

It was expected that this year’s freshmen battalion would be critical in the Minutemen’s overall team dynamic, but much like the recent success of UMass as a whole, I don’t think anybody could have foreseen the type of first half the Minutemen put together over a 66-day span.

Oliver Chau and Mitchell Chaffee are the easy targets as far as freshmen who have opened eyes thus far. Chau leads UMass with seven goals and 15 points, and has easily been the Minutemen’s most consistent offensive threat. Chaffee’s unearthing as a reliable point producer might be the most impressive development of the half, as the burly winger enters the break with a seven-game point streak and is second in points behind Chau with 13 (six goals, seven assists).

Jake Gaudet has seemed more and more accustomed in the lineup in the last few games, notching four points in his previous five games, including the game winning goal Sunday. Niko Rufo, the redshirt senior transfer, has integrated seamlessly into a predominantly inexperienced core and potted six goals and 11 points early on. John Leonard was scorching the Earth early for the Minutemen, recording points in seven of his first nine career games.

UMass is much stronger than last year in its defensive end, and Makar and Ferraro are the prime suspects as to why. The duo, who were recently selected to Team Canada’s World Junior Selection Camp roster, have the vision necessary to find teammates in low-traffic areas when breaking out of the zone, and can use their legs and skate the puck out themselves if need be.

For a Minuteman team that allowed almost four goals per game in 2016-17 (3.67), the ability to get the puck out and not allow opponents to dictate control is a crucial aspect that oftentimes gets overlooked. Jake McLaughlin and Ivan Chukarov have also done their jobs on the blueline as the two are the only other D-men besides Makar and Ferraro that have a positive plus/minus, at plus-1 each.

The Thanksgiving weekend sweep of Quinnipiac, first a 2-1 win in Hamden then a 6-3 smacking at Mullins, immediately come to mind when harking back on some of UMass’ statement performances. Two weeks before, the Minutemen upended then-No. 8 Providence 5-2 on home ice, in potentially UMass’ biggest upset of the season to date. Wins against UConn and Merrimack can be tossed in to the pile of ‘feel good’ wins as well; however, I’ll point to the season sweep against Union, with both games coming two months apart, as the two most important wins for the Minutemen during this stretch.

On Oct. 13, UMass played one of its most complete games of hockey I’ve ever seen and came away with a 5-4 win over the Dutchmen. UMass showed a level of compete and pace that wasn’t apparent at all just a season ago in a win that foreshadowed much of what we’re seeing now from this Minutemen lineup.

Then, just two days ago, UMass again went to Schenectady and earned the victory, smothering No. 19 Union in a 2-1 win in its final game of 2017. It wasn’t the prettiest game, but the Minutemen found a way to get the job done.

UMass is finding ways to win hockey games this year as opposed to last season, where the Minutemen found ways to lose.

It’s really as simple as that.

Granted, the goaltending tandem of Ryan Wischow and Matt Murray helps significantly when each are on their game. Murray was feeling it at the start for UMass, winning three of his first five starts in net, but following a shaky first period in which No. 31 allowed three goals in the first 20 minutes against New Hampshire — a defeat I would characterize as the Minutemen’s lowest point of the semester — Murray hasn’t been the same.

Luckily for UMass, Wischow took the reins and followed it up with five wins in his next six starts since the 3-0 loss to UNH Nov. 3. Wischow’s revival will be something to keep an eye on moving forward as the sophomore is extremely effective when he’s on. The only problem is he hasn’t put more than two consecutive solid games together all season.

The Minutemen used a plethora of factors to fast-track their ascension up the college hockey landscape over the first few months of the 2017-18 year, and are now earning respect around the nation having earned 10 votes in the poll, their third appearance three weeks in a row.

UMass showed pretty early that the pieces were there to possibly make some noise this year, but the success the Minutemen have already garnered proves it’s not crazy to think they might be primed for more wins come championship time in February and March.

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

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