Final two games looming for UMass hockey with paramount playoff implications

Minutemen travel to UConn, host Providence


(Jon Asgeirsson/ Daily Collegian)

By Ryan Ames, Assistant Sports Editor

Two regular season games remain for the Massachusetts hockey team this season, but they may as well be playoff bouts because UMass is already in do-or-die mode.

The Minutemen (13-17-2, 7-13-2 Hockey East Association) head to Hartford to try and cool off the hottest team in Hockey East in UConn first on Thursday, and then host perennial power No. 7 Providence, in the final regular season game of 2017-18 Saturday night at the Mullins Center.

Sitting one point shy of eighth-place Vermont and the right to host the first round of the Hockey East Playoffs, UMass needs to win at least one of its final two games, plus get some help from around the league, to secure home-ice advantage for the first time since the 2006-07 season and avoid having to play on unfamiliar territory the rest of the way.

“We talk a lot about trying to execute at the highest level but also try and start getting into a playoff mindset,” Minutemen coach Greg Carvel said. “We’re going to play the two teams in our league that are probably the best. UConn is winning because of how hard they play and they’re being rewarded for their effort. Then you play Providence who always plays at that level, so we feel like we got two playoff-style games coming up for our last two games.”

The Huskies (15-16-2, 11-11-1 HEA) are victors of seven straight coming into Thursday’s game, while the Friars (20-9-4, 13-6-4 HEA) put together another sound year as one of the top programs in the nation and have not lost consecutive games since early November.

“These are big games for us,” UMass freshman defenseman Mario Ferraro said. “Obviously we could use the wins for home-ice advantage but it’s more important because it leads to playoff hockey. These are the two hardest working teams in our league.”

Freshman forward John Leonard suffered what looked to be a shoulder injury in the Minutemen’s 5-2 loss to Boston College last Thursday, and Carvel confirmed Leonard will not dress in either of the concluding two games this weekend.

Missing its top scorer in Leonard (23 points in 28 games), UMass will have a pretty hefty hole to fill without the services of its first-year sniper.

“Obviously Johnny is a big part of our offensive game—I think he’s second on the team in goals—but yeah I think we have plenty of guys in that locker room that can step up and get big goals for us,” redshirt senior Niko Rufo said. “Johnny will definitely be a big loss but I think we have more than what it takes to get a couple goals this weekend.”

No. 9’s 10 goals trail only freshman forward Mitchell Chaffee’s 12 for the team lead.

The Minutemen are familiar with each upcoming opponent as they have already each met twice, with both instances resulting in a home victory for UMass, followed by a blowout on the road the next game. On Nov. 9 the Minutemen beat Providence 5-2 but then fell 7-2 two nights later. Similarly, on Dec. 1 UMass defeated UConn 4-2 but proceeded to get blown out 8-2 in the next meeting.

“The UConn game was a strange game that got away from us, Providence outplayed us thoroughly for 60 minutes and that score was indicative of the game,” said Carvel. “The UConn game I didn’t feel it was, I thought every time they shot it went in the net. I think we’re now at a place where I don’t think that would happen anymore to us, where we’re more mature and can handle things better.”

Freshman goalie Matt Murray has started the past four games and has only recorded one loss during that stretch, however Carvel disclosed the starting job in net is not a done deal.

“Neither guy has earned the right to wear the crown for the rest of the year, that’s just the situation, (but) Matt is a little bit ahead right now,” Carvel said.

Saturday’s game against the Friars will have an added caveat of being the final regular season home game for seniors Rufo and Jake Horton. For Rufo, going up against his former team in the Friars will be an especially noteworthy sendoff for the Stoneham native.

“It’s going to be fun because I get to play against my buddies even though on the ice I don’t know if we’ll be friends,” said Rufo. “It’s going to be emotional for sure but I’ll try to put that aside for the last game.”

With postseason positioning and home ice hopes on the Minutemen’s minds, it’s safe to say the playoff atmosphere has already taken hold of UMass.

“It’s not going to be easy. Nothing’s going to be given to us for free so we got to earn all that and that’s what this weekend is all about: getting ready for the playoffs and stealing some points,” Ferraro said.

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