No. 2 UMass readies for UConn, No. 10 Providence this weekend

Only five Hockey East matchups remain on the regular-season schedule

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No. 2 UMass readies for UConn, No. 10 Providence this weekend

Caroline O'Connor/Collegian

Caroline O'Connor/Collegian

Caroline O'Connor/Collegian

Caroline O'Connor/Collegian

By Liam Flaherty, Collegian Staff

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Only five games separate the Massachusetts hockey team and the conclusion of the regular season. Following this weekend’s matchups against Connecticut and No. 10 Providence, No. 2 UMass will be that much closer to making an anticipated return to the high-stakes competition of playoff college hockey.

In the aftermath of the program’s first-ever sweep of Boston College, the Minutemen (20-6-0, 15-4-0 Hockey East Association) secured a spot to play in the 2019 Hockey East Tournament in March. In the standings, they hold a six-point edge over the Friars (18-9-5, 11-7-2 HEA) and No. 14 UMass Lowell.

With a month to go before the start of the tournament, and Hockey East matchups against the Huskies (10-18-2, 5-13-2 HEA) and Providence on the horizon, UMass remains focused on the present.

“We don’t really pay attention to it,” said centerman Jake Gaudet. “We take it one game at a time. It’s like, ‘We beat BC. Alright, cool. What did we do wrong? How can we figure out how to get better? Do that the next game. Beat them again.’ So, for us, it’s just building on that momentum and continuing to focus on the process and the little details that make us successful and using that game in and game out.”

Some teams might overlook UConn on Thursday in preparation for the top-20 showdown against the Friars on Saturday, but the Minutemen have learned to stay in the moment, coach Greg Carvel said.

“We’re very much just focused on UConn. I don’t know if you watched practice today, but I’m focused to make sure the team is focused,” Carvel said. “If we practice lackadaisical, then we’ll play lackadaisical.”

The Huskies are tied for ninth place entering Thursday’s game at Mullins. They’ve won three of their last four games, including overtime wins over Boston University and Boston College. UMass already faced UConn once this season en route to a 7-4 victory on Nov. 30, led by four points from forward Mitchell Chaffee.

“By no means are we taking UConn lightly,” Gaudet added. “They’re a really big team, they battle really hard. They came in here the last time we played and got up 2-0 really quick, so that’s our first focus.”

Simon Nathans/Collegian

Karl El-Mir and Alexander Payusov lead the Huskies in scoring with 13 and 15 goals, respectively.

Providence took a tumble in the standings midway through the season and appeared to be losing steam but has since clawed its way back into the top-3 and solidified its position as a dangerous contender.

The Friars, who do not play on Friday, enter Saturday’s matchup coming off a pivotal home-and-home sweep of the River Hawks (17-10-2, 11-6-2 HEA) who entered the weekend unbeaten in ten-straight.

The Minutemen saw Providence twice in November and won both games of the home-and-home series, 3-2. Both outcomes were decided by go-ahead goals on shots let go from the point in the final minutes.

“We learned a lesson down there,” Carvel said of Schneider Arena. “It’s a tough place to play. We know it’s going to be a low-scoring game and we’ll have to try to grind out a victory like we did last time.”

The Friars are anchored in net by junior goaltender Hayden Hawkey, who’s tied for first in DI with seven shutouts. At forward, Josh Wilkins and Jack Dugan lead Providence in scoring with 28-plus points each.

Tightening up defensive coverage has been a major priority for UMass down the stretch and, as seen in its sweep of the Eagles (10-16-3, 9-7-3 HEA), the group has come a long way on even strength. But there are still areas in which the Minutemen have to improve upon leading up to the postseason, Carvel said.

“I was real pleased with Saturday’s game,” Carvel said. “We only gave up three or four scoring chances. They scored five goals and three were on the power play, so 5-on-5 we were good,” he said. “I think our goaltenders need to step up a little bit, save percentage is slipping a little bit, and our penalty kill has to be better, but 5-on-5 we checked pretty well.”

Gaudet, who went 20-for-37 in the faceoff circle against BC, agreed that UMass is trending in the right direction.

“We’ve definitely made strides,” he said on Tuesday. “We’ve been focusing on working really hard in practice, getting physical and battling a lot. As we start getting toward playoff time, that’s going to be really important.”

“This is the fun time of year,” Carvel said. “Both teams get up easily for games. If we start well — we never seem to tail off in games, we always seem to get better — but sometimes we don’t decide to play until halfway through the game. As long as we decide to play from the drop of the puck, we’ll be fine.”

Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. on Thursday at the Mullins Center and 5 p.m. on Saturday in Providence.

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