The crucial fifth defenseman: Jake McLaughlin

The junior netted his first two goals of the season against Boston University and Boston College

Amelia+Shaw%2FCollegian

Amelia Shaw/Collegian

By Mollie Walker, Assistant Sports Editor

You’re only as good as your fifth defenseman.

That’s the belief of Massachusetts coach Greg Carvel when it comes to his No. 2 ranked squad as they head into their final five games of the regular season. To him, defense will be the difference maker in how they do with the Hockey East and NCAA Tournaments on the horizon.

“We got the top-four guys who are always going to do what they do and they’re consistent and they score and they’re good players,” Carvel said following practice Tuesday afternoon. “But when your number five is as good as any top four on another team, that makes us a really good team.

“So, when your number-five defenseman is scoring game-winning goals and driving the net and scoring against [Boston University and Boston College], it makes us a really good team.”

For the Minutemen (23-6-0, 15-4-0 Hockey East Association), that player is Jake McLaughlin.

It may have taken the junior 20 games into the season to notch his first goal, but now he has hit a rhythm that has served UMass well. He’s accumulated 25 shots this entire season, and 10 of those have come in the last six contests.

On Feb. 8 against BU, McLaughlin put the Minutemen up by two after battling at the front of the net to bury a feed from Jack Suter. Just three games later, he was the hero of the 4-3 victory over the Eagles when he banged home the game-winner with 2.3 seconds left.

“For me, it’s nice to get one,” McLaughlin said. “It’s good that things are starting to flow a little bit for me. Just got to keep going at practice and sticking to the process and hopefully more will come.”

McLaughlin doesn’t consider himself a consistent point scorer, but he was satisfied with his ability to win battles, make simple plays and lock down on the penalty kill up until this point. He was still familiarizing himself with his new role as fifth defenseman after serving in a top-four role last season.

Carvel blames the transition in roles as to why McLaughlin can sometimes get “lost in the shuffle.” But the coaching staff has communicated to the 6-foot-2 defenseman that the team needs his best brand of hockey in order to take the next step.

Looking back at the earlier part of the season, McLaughlin now realizes that he may have been in his head too much. From his experience, he thinks it’s important for every hockey player to know that coming into games with only a goal-scoring mindset can be detrimental.

The Illinois native plans to focus on a simple game for the remainder of the season – it’s what’s gotten him his two goals in the last four contests. Carvel knows that McLaughlin has his head in the right place now, considering he’s been watching his hard work in practice transfer into games.

“Play the game and let the game come to you, and capitalize on your opportunities,” McLaughlin said of his new focus. “I think that’s something that I’ve been doing lately.”

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