UMass focuses on crease battle in preparation for Maine

Minutemen prepare for their second away series of the season

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Caroline O’Connor/Collegian

By Mollie Walker, Assistant Sports Editor

This time last year, things for the Massachusetts hockey team were going a lot differently.

In the first six games of 2018, the Minutemen posted a 2-3-1 record, dropping games to important competition like Yale, UMass Lowell and Maine. It wasn’t the strongest of second-half starts for the Minutemen, who went on to drop seven of the final 12 games of the regular season.

The 2019 slate has been a different story for No. 2 UMass (18-4-0, 10-2-0 Hockey East Association). With four wins in the last six contests, the Minutemen face their fourth Hockey East opponent of the new year as they travel to play Maine (8-11-3, 4-5-3 HEA) this weekend.

“We were a little rusty coming back but I’ve seen gradual progress each game,” coach Greg Carvel said after Tuesday’s practice about the start to 2019. “And I would say that we’re back to a level that we should be at – good energy, playing the right way, playing hard, playing heavy.”

“But at the same time, looking back at the tape from Saturday night,” he added, “We didn’t get to the net with as much conviction as we did the night before and that was, to us, the difference in the game.”

UMass split the weekend with No. 8 Northeastern, unloading an offensive outpouring 6-1 win on Friday before a nail-biting 2-1 overtime loss on Saturday. The No. 1 team in Hockey East then dropped to No. 2 in the national polls.

Carvel mentioned how play around the net has been a focus in practice this week as the team goes on to play against a talented goaltender once again. He complimented UMass’ ability to screen Cayden Primeau in the first game against the Huskies but how on the second night the netminder mostly saw the shots coming.

With Maine goaltender Jeremy Swayman on deck, the Minutemen will need to make the adjustments they failed to make against Primeau in the Saturday-night loss to Northeastern.

“I think it’s being able to get to the net, being able to score those dirty goals when a goalie gets hot,” captain Niko Hildenbrand said. “We saw it on Saturday. [Primeau] starts feeling the puck, we have 45, 46 shots on net and only manufactured one goal.”

“It’s doing the dirty things and being able to score those goals that’ll win us the tight games going into the playoffs.”

The Minutemen dropped all three of its contests against the Black Bears last season, despite playing two of the three games in Amherst. Before that, the last time UMass beat Maine was a 5-4 overtime victory in 2015.

The Black Bears managed to score three goals on the Minutemen each time the two teams faced off last year, but Carvel still felt that his team played well. He recalls how the Black Bears don’t hesitate to post in front of the net and throw pucks towards the crease. He anticipates a “net-front battle kind of weekend.”

Sitting at No. 8 in Hockey East, Maine has gone 3-2-1 to kick off 2019. They lead the league in penalty minutes, averaging 14 PIM per game, and slide in with the fifth best penalty kill at 84.3 percent.

“It’s going to be a series that’s going to be hard, they’re a hard-working team, they get to the net,” Hildenbrand said. “They do the little things, it’s not an overly skilled team but it’s a team that works extremely hard and from last year I think we know that.”

“We played well last year and I think, with the group we have right now, we feel confident we can go in there and play hard and give them a real game.”

UMass travels to Orono on Thursday for the weekend series, which is set to begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday before wrapping up 7 p.m. Saturday.

Mollie Walker can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MWalker2019.