No. 2 UMass clinches Hockey East regular season title

Three unanswered goals in the third period anchor UMass to a 4-2 victory over Merrimack

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(Caroline O’Connor)

By Mollie Walker, Assistant Sports Editor

NORTH ANDOVER – Coach Greg Carvel has had a lot of memorable experiences in hockey – including making it to the Stanley Cup Finals, twice.

But when the Massachusetts hockey team clinched the Hockey East regular-season title Thursday night, a new hockey moment skyrocketed to the top of his list.

“It’s a group of kids that have really come together and no one expected this out of them, and they’ve carried it all year long,” Carvel said over the elated screams coming from the visiting locker room inside Lawler Rink. “Even tonight, going into the third period down a goal, just they’ve always risen. They’ve risen all year long.

“You don’t get experiences like that very often and to see these kids be rewarded for what they’ve given for the past two years is awesome.”

The Minutemen (25-7-0, 17-5-0 Hockey East Association) defeated Merrimack (7-23-3, 4-17-2 HEA) for the third time this season, scoring three unanswered goals in the final period on the way to a 4-2 victory on the road.

Matt Murray made 18 saves in his 20th win of the season, surpassing the UMass program record for wins in a single season. But not even setting a program record could get Murray to take any credit for himself.

“I think at the same, as it’s my 20th win personally, I think that just shows a lot about the team,” Murray said, still dressed in all his goalie pads. “All the guys have been amazing, making it a relatively easy year for me compared to how it could’ve been. They’re diving in front of pucks head first, and they’re putting their bodies on the line.

“It’s amazing to see the courage that our team has and I think that’s one of the biggest attributes to being able to have that 20-win season.”

The Minutemen earned the first power play of the evening, when Matt McArdle was called for interference just over three minutes into regulation. Cale Makar capitalized on the opportunity, cleaning up the rebound around Warrior netminder Craig Pantano for the 1-0 lead.

Puck control was, for the most part, dominated by UMass in the first, with Merrimack struggling to be effective coming out of the neutral zone. But a one-goal lead was all the Minutemen were able to build for themselves heading into the first intermission.

Merrimack opened the middle frame with a lingering man-advantage from a Mitchell Chaffee hit-from-behind penalty at the end of the first. Just as it expired, Derek Petti evened the score.

The tie game sent the matchup into a penalty-ridden frenzy, with 10 penalties – including one Merrimack five-minute major – called in just the second period alone. Niko Hildenbrand, Philip Lagunov and Makar all served penalties while John Leonard was forced to serve a too many men on the ice call.

At the end of the second, Johnathan Kovacevic sent a long shot that made contact with Murray’s pads before Ryan Cook swept in to tap home the rebound for the 2-1 lead at 18:37. UMass managed to generate a handful of quality chances, but couldn’t connect.

“It was a weird game, it was a strange game,” Carvel said. “And then the second period was – I don’t know, nobody really knew what was going on. But we reset after the second, came out in the third and the first couple of shifts were good.”

Just under four minutes into the third, Bobby Trivigno knot the game at two after pulling away from a Warrior defender and flipping through Pantano. And 18 seconds later, Jake Gaudet added a back-breaking third tally, cleaning up the rebound off of an initial shot from Makar.

With an empty Merrimack net, Makar put the game out of reach with his 13th goal of the season.

UMass has just two regular-season games left on the schedule, facing Maine in the Mullins Center this upcoming Saturday and UConn the following Friday in Hartford.

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