Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘NewMass’ on the rise as playoff hockey returns to Mullins

Minutemen host Vermont in a best of three-game series

(Amelia Shaw/ Daily Collegian)

(Amelia Shaw/ Daily Collegian)

(Amelia Shaw/ Daily Collegian)

By Liam Flaherty, Collegian Staff

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For the Massachusetts hockey team, Thursday night’s puck drop can’t come soon enough.

Not since 2006-07 has UMass (15-17-2, 9-13-2 Hockey East Association) hosted a Hockey East playoff game in Amherst, but this weekend, for the first time in 11 years, the Minutemen welcome Vermont (9-18-7, 6-12-6 HEA) to the Mullins Center for a decisive three-game postseason series.

The program, in just its second season under the leadership of coach Greg Carvel, has made tremendous strides toward affirming Carvel’s “NewMass” mentality.

In under a year’s time, the Minutemen successfully made the jump from last place in Hockey East to eighth.

But even after tripling last year’s regular season win total, the hunt to truly turn the UMass program around remains ongoing.

“We’re always looking to elevate our standard,” said freshman defenseman Mario Ferraro. “I know that a lot of people watching are like, ‘Yeah, yeah, they may have done it,’ but for us, we’re always looking to improve, keep pushing the pace and grow as a team.”

After losing six straight games from late January to early February it seemed as though the Minutemen’s season had inevitably taken a turn for the worse. But, UMass responded in hearty fashion, going on a 4-1-1 tear over the final six games to secure the eighth seed and a key first-round advantage.

“It’s a huge bonus,” said freshman goaltender Matt Murray. “Our homestand is pretty impressive, and being able to stay in our routine and being comfortable in our own rooms and our own rink, it’s huge.”

However, whether at home or on the road, Carvel was quick to shut down any possible distractions that can often plague playoff teams. To the second-year coach, hockey is still hockey.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a playoff game or who we’re playing,” he said. “We know what we’re supposed to do, and when we do it, we’re pretty good, so that’s what we’re focusing on.”

In net, Murray has been one of the most prominent Minutemen through their late stretch of success, allowing only 11 goals in six games—the outlier a 5-2 loss to Boston College—to give UMass a chance to compete for points and move up the standings in each of its final contests.

“I thought the Providence game [a 1-0 win] was his best, so he’s found his comfort zone,” Carvel said. “[That game] helps a lot. That’s a feeling I haven’t had a lot this year, where I’m thinking, ‘They can throw whatever they want at the net, and we’re gonna get the saves that we need.’”

Murray’s shutout against the Friars was his fourth of the season, surpassing Jonathan Quick (2006-07) and Markus Helanen (2000-01) for the most zero-goal performances in a single-season by a UMass netminder.

“[On Saturday], the guys were playing with their all, and that really helped me out front. A shutout is always a team accolade,” Murray said. “If we play the way we have been, stick to our systems and outcompete [Vermont], then I have all the confidence in the guys that we’ll be just fine.”

In front of Murray, Ferraro has been a key contributor in keeping pucks out of harm’s way, but more notably, the San Jose Sharks draft pick has made his presence felt in the offensive zone, something Carvel noted can be a big factor this weekend.

“If we can get him to make plays to create offense for us that’ll be huge,” Carvel said. “We know that he’s going to compete, we know he’s going to win battles and play a lot of minutes, but its that next level of being able to create offense out of his defensive play.”

Playing in each of the Minutemen’s 34 games this season, the Ontario native scored three goals and registered 17 assists. Ferraro’s 20 points were enough to tie current NHL defenseman Brandon Montour and his single-season point record with UMass as a freshman defender.

“A goal of mine this year was definitely to come in and provide some offense,” Ferraro said. “I like to look at it as a good accomplishment, but at the end of the day, team success is what brings out individual success. Without these guys in the room and the coaches, I couldn’t have done it.”

Puck drop on Thursday is set for 7 p.m.

Liam Flaherty can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @_LiamFlaherty.

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