Niko Hildenbrand’s game-winner pushes UMass past Rensselaer, 5-3

The Minutemen opened the second half with a 5-3 win

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Niko Hildenbrand’s game-winner pushes UMass past Rensselaer, 5-3

Collegian File Photo

Collegian File Photo

Collegian File Photo

Collegian File Photo

By Liam Flaherty, Assistant Sports Editor

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The Massachusetts hockey team kicked off the second half of the season with a 5-3 win over Rensselaer on Sunday, battling back and forth in the third period to win its fourth-straight game.

Entering the third period tied at one goal apiece, both offenses exploded, as the Minutemen (13-4-1, 6-3-1 Hockey East) and the Engineers (6-10-1, 3-5-1 Eastern College Athletic Conference) traded five goals in the span of 6:04. Niko Hildenbrand’s late marker ultimately proved to be the game-winner.

After RPI took an early first-period lead, Jack Suter pulled No. 9 UMass even at one at the start of the second, before Reed Lebster and Matt Kessel netted goals to set up Hildenbrand’s go-ahead tally.

“The first two periods went as I expected,” Greg Carvel said. “RPI’s been playing well and I knew they were going to be a hungry team, so tied after two was expected, but the third period I think was the sign of two teams that haven’t played in a while, probably a little tired and that’s why the game got a little erratic and a lot of goals were scored.”

It was the Minutemen’s first game action in 19 days since defeating Brown to wrap up the first half and kick off the winter break. Carvel was pleased with how his team handled the time away from the ice.

“Real good sign,” he added. “Both teams were resilient, but our guys just had a little bit more. “There’s no easy wins, especially on the road, so we’re excited to get this one under our belt.”

After the Minutemen controlled much of the first period and outshot the Engineers early, Mike Gornall cleaned up his own rebound in the crease to give RPI a 1-0 lead with two minutes left.

UMass answered five minutes into the second when Jack Suter stuffed in his own second attempt on a feed from Oliver Chau. The senior’s first goal of the season knotted the game at one apiece.

Following the first exchange of goals, both teams went a little dormant for the rest of the period.

Six minutes into the third, still knotted at one, the Minutemen got the boost they were looking for with some nice puck movement on the power play from John Leonard and Mitchell Chaffe to set up Lebster for the go-ahead goal, building a 2-1 lead that marked Lebster’s sixth of the season.

The Engineers came right back just over a minute later as Daniel DiGrande returned the favor, but UMass was up for the challenge. 54 seconds after the goal, Kessel scored to reclaim the lead at 3-2.

After Chaffee got the puck to Peyton Reeves in the slot, Reeves fired a shot on Alec Calvaruso (32 saves) that bounced over to Kessell and allowed the freshman to bury his fifth of the season.

Once again, RPI wouldn’t back down.

It took only 30 seconds for the Engineers to erase UMass’ progress as Patrick Polino beat Matt Murray (20 saves) to even it up at 3-3 again.

Three minutes later, Hildenbrand’s redirection off a Marc Del Gaizo shot gave the Minutemen a 4-3 lead, one they would not squander. In the final minute, the captain scored his second of the night on an empty netter to secure the win.

“I think you can tell the batteries are recharged, they had a good energy and mindset,” Carvel said. “Third period the guys were getting tired, making mental mistakes in our zone, giving up kinds of goals that we really don’t usually give up, so two goals in the third period were breakdowns by us in the defensive zone, which we’ve been pretty good about. Tonight, the forwards did the job, found ways to score, and that big power play in the third period kind of ignited our offense.”

Sunday’s win is particularly important for the Minutemen because it’s their only tune-up before going cross-country on short rest for a weekend set and Frozen Four rematch with No. 6 Denver.

“I think we did a good job of not looking past RPI at all, I had no sense of that,” Carvel said. “But now that you get that win it’s good to build some confidence going into what’s going to be a very difficult weekend, but I’m sure our guys will be excited to play. After playing in the national semifinals last year Denver’s going to be out to prove something and as will we. We’ve got a streak of wins going here so it was nice to keep it going.”

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