After historic season, next chapter for UMass hockey starts against RPI on Friday

UMass swept two-game series last season

By Noah Bortle, Assistant Sports Editor

The 2018-2019 season saw the Massachusetts hockey team play its best season to date, winning a program record 31 games. Six months after losing in Buffalo, the Minutemen will take to the ice to begin their 2019-2020 season on Friday against Rensselaer.

A season ago RPI visited the Mullins Center to open the season, falling 6-1. UMass hopes for much of the same this year but knows both teams are very different.

“We won’t take anything away from [last year’s game],” coach Greg Carvel said. “We’ve seen a little bit of them, and they look like a pretty solid team.”

Carvel drew parallels between the state of the RPI hockey program and the rebuild that he went through with UMass. With the Engineers entering year three under coach Dave Smith, Carvel expects a similar jump as the Minutemen experienced in his second season at the helm.

Coming off a 10-win campaign a season ago, the Engineers will be thrown into the fire against the No. 4 Minutemen. To make matters worse, RPI lost one of its top players this offseason when Jacob Hayhurst and his team-leading 23 points transferred to Michigan.

For UMass, sophomore defenseman Marc Del Gaizo will miss the game as he recovers from a shoulder injury. The loss further complicates a defense that is moving on from Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro’s jump to the NHL, two of the best players to ever come through UMass.

“[With Marc out] I have to just be myself, play my game.” sophomore defenseman Ty Farmer said. “Stick to the little things and stick to the simple things.”

Questions still remain on who will be in net behind the Minuteman defense on Friday. During Tuesday’s post-practice media availability, Carvel declined to name a starting goaltender instead choosing to point towards playing the hot hand early on in the season.

“I don’t think it matters [who is playing goalie],” Mitchell Chaffee said. “I think our team has faith in both of our goalies. I don’t think that’ll be a problem going forward.”

Easing the concern of the Minuteman defense is the Engineers’ lack of a prolific offense. In 36 games last season, no player managed to even reach nine goals. With no real goal scoring threats, RPI managed only 1.92 goals per game.

While missing their top scorer from a year ago, the Engineers hope that the depth that they return will make up for no top of the line goal scoring threats. RPI brings back three of their four highest point scorers from last year.

The Engineers best hope for an offensive breakout against the shorthanded UMass defense lies in Ottoville Leppänen. As a freshman, Leppänen tallied 19 points, second-best on the team.

While RPI may struggle offensively, its strength lies in its goaltending. Sophomore goalie Owen Savory returns for the Engineers a season removed from posting a .926 save percentage. The Minutemen return a deep forward group that they are confident will break down RPI’s defense.

“We’re a pretty offensive team,” Chaffee said. “The biggest thing is just attacking the net.”

“There’s very few games when you just can’t beat a goaltender,” Carvel added.

On top of Friday being the season opener at Mullins, the game also serves as a celebration of last year’s historic Frozen Four run with a banner ceremony pregame.

Although players expect a lot of energy in the building, don’t expect the Minutemen to be distracted by the pageantry.

“The energy is going to be motivational when you see [the banner],” Farmer said. “We obviously didn’t get what we wanted last year. It’s a new year and it’s a new start but seeing that’s really going to push each and every one of us.”

Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. at the Mullins Center.

“To be an NCAA [Tournament] team, which is our goal, you need to take care of business at home and you have to win your non-conference games,” Carvel said. “So, this is a big game to start the season.”

Noah Bortle can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @noah_bortle.