Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Ames: UMass hockey’s ability to win close games an encouraging sign

Minutemen swept Providence even when not playing their best

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Ames: UMass hockey’s ability to win close games an encouraging sign

(Caroline O'Connor/UMass Athletics)

(Caroline O'Connor/UMass Athletics)

(Caroline O'Connor/UMass Athletics)

(Caroline O'Connor/UMass Athletics)

By Ryan Ames, Assistant Sports Editor

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Nine games have been played and eight wins have been secured. Sitting in first place in the Hockey East Association standings and freshly minted as the fourth-ranked team in the country, the Massachusetts hockey team is in a good spot, to say the least.

After years and years of occupying the bottom of seemingly any standings, UMass (8-1-0, 5-0-0 HEA) has flipped the script. The Minutemen are one of the most dangerous teams in the country because of a lethal power play, a suffocating penalty kill and goaltending that has been remarkable in key moments of games.

However, what has caught my eye specifically through this current winning stretch has been UMass’ ability to pull out wins despite not playing its best hockey.

Against Providence, the Minutemen were largely outplayed in the second and third periods of each game but managed to secure victories anyway. Now, some people may look at this in a negative light and claim UMass was lucky to skate away with two wins over the Friars. That might be true, but the way I see it, the Minutemen are winning games, against quality teams, with a brand of hockey that isn’t their best.

Strong teams find a way to win even if they don’t necessarily deserve to and so far, UMass has done just that.

The Minutemen have done this with a relatively young squad, which to me shows the maturity within the locker room is ahead of its time. Coach Greg Carvel has also mentioned that he doesn’t consider this to be a young team, largely because of the important roles so many underclassmen are being given.

Cale Makar would be at the top of the list of players who are assuming a lot of responsibility. Makar’s the most gifted player UMass has and for the most part, he’s done what has been expected of him. This past weekend was the first set of games where No. 16 didn’t find the scoresheet, which speaks even more to the magnitude of the two victories.

Moving forward, improving its 5-on-5 puck-possession throughout the course of a 60-minute affair will be a focus for the Minutemen. The Friars had a plethora of opportunities in the UMass defensive end and if not for some late-game heroics from Matt Murray in net, there’s a good chance the Minutemen would have multiple losses to their name.

Murray’s play has perhaps been the biggest storyline during UMass’ historic start and his play has mirrored that of his teammates as well. He’s bolted out to a 6-0-0 record by staying calm, cool and collected when the opposition looked primed to score, and the Minutemen skaters in front of him have admitted to feeding off it.

The fact that over 50 percent of their wins have come on the road can’t be overlooked either. Last season, UMass had a few upset wins over ranked teams such as Northeastern and Providence but then the next night at the opponent’s barn, it suffered big-time losses. Those losses took some of the air out of the impressive wins the night before by making it appear more like a fluke than a sign of a solid team.

This season, the Minutemen have finished what they’ve started.

First, they beat Merrimack at Mullins and then went to North Andover and left with a hard-fought win. Then, they did the same thing versus Providence this past weekend, not to mention a high-profile win over Ohio State plus a victory at New Hampshire that lifted a decade-long curse at the Whittemore Center.

Say what you want about the start UMass hockey has had to this point, but this Minutemen bunch is a good team that has gotten to this point with a level of play they are not completely satisfied with.

Imagine what they can accomplish when they reach that level.

Makes you think.

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

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