Flaherty: UMass coming to a crossroads ahead of series with Maine

Minutemen sit in seventh place ahead of the final two Hockey East games of the first half

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Flaherty: UMass coming to a crossroads ahead of series with Maine

(Nina Walat/Daily Collegian)

(Nina Walat/Daily Collegian)

(Nina Walat/Daily Collegian)

(Nina Walat/Daily Collegian)

By Liam Flaherty, Assistant Sports Editor

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Through 14 games, it’s been an up and down start to the season for the Massachusetts hockey team.

After an early loss to No. 8 Northeastern on the road, No. 11 UMass rattled off five consecutive wins before losing back-to-back games for the first time in over a year to New Hampshire and Boston University. It bounced back with a decisive win over BU, but went on to tie and narrowly defeat Merrimack. Most recently, it split a series with Quinnipiac that included a subpar performance in the back half of the set with a 2-1 loss Saturday.

Losing two top players, dealing with a bounty of injuries and relying on a large cast of freshman skaters early in the year never helps, but it’s been a bumpy – although not terrible – start, regardless.

Through all the inconsistencies over the first two months with slow starts, inconsistent efforts leading to desperation too late in games, taking undisciplined penalties and playing poorly away from the Mullins Center, the Minutemen (9-4-1, 4-3-1 Hockey East) sit in seventh place in the 11-team standings coming off the unprecedented success the program witnessed last season.

In eight league games, they’ve picked up nine of 16 possible points. The Huskies (10-4-2, 6-3-1 HEA) sit atop the standings, ahead of No. 15 Providence, with 13 of 20 possible points through 10 games.

With only two Hockey East games left before winter break commences on Dec. 11, this weekend’s two-game set with sixth-place Maine poses a major crossroads for UMass heading into the second half and the arduous schedule it presents. In January, the Minutemen face tough tests with two games against No. 4 Denver and two more against No. 10 Boston College a week later.

To make matters more difficult, UMass is on the road for six of its first seven games after the break.

In order to avoid dropping too far in the standings before that stretch arrives, the final two league games against the Black Bears (8-5-3, 4-4-2 HEA) are the Minutemen’s major chance to stay afloat.

“They’re crucial,” coach Greg Carvel said. “That’s where we’re at. These would be two big wins that would catapult us up a little bit. Home games – we’ve got to take care of business at home. We’ve had a lot of road games through those eight games, we’ve got to take care of business. Maine is going to be another team that plays real hard, well-coached, you know what you’re going to get.  If you don’t show up and compete, you’re not going to win.”

“I think Saturday night [against Merrimack] we got a little bit complacent in our own building and we just got to get back to what makes us good in our building,” John Leonard said. “When we’re playing to our identity and we’re playing fast and doing everything that we do the right way, we’re a very successful team, so we just got to get back to that.”

It’s a big weekend for UMass, no doubt, a big opportunity to finish the first half on a positive note and grab some league points that will matter tremendously in a few months for the playoffs.

“Every night’s important, whether it’s conference or non-conference, and Hockey East is a very tough conference to get points from,” said Leonard, who’s scored eight goals this season as a junior. “We’re in a spot right now in the standings where every single point matters. We’ve got to come out ready to go or they’re going to steal those points from us, which we don’t want them to do in our building.”

Having students back on campus should help. Over the past 11 months, the only two games the Minutemen have lost at the Mullins Center came over breaks, when the building was nearly empty.

“I think everyone in our locker room loves when it’s packed and we feed off that energy when all the students are there,” Leonard said. “Sometimes driving to the rink at 4:30 you see the students already lined up before we get in, so it’s awesome to see. It definitely gets us fired up, but at the end of the day we have to be able to build off our own energy, even in an empty barn like on Saturday.”

The big picture is key, and with three games left in the first half, it’s slowly starting to take shape.

“We always try to focus on the next game, that next shift, the next period, but at the end of the day we’re trying to fight for a playoff spot and we’re thinking big picture at the same time,” Leonard said. “So, you got to keep it in the back of your head but at the same time look at the moment and do the best you can to help the team win that night.”

The Minutemen need all the points they can get right now for the sake of their ultimate goal come March and this weekend is a major opportunity to boost their place in the standings, especially at home where they are 15-1-1 in their last 17 games.

They just need to come ready to play their style.

“That’s the bottom line,” Carvel said ahead of the series. “We always say ‘will trumps skill,’ so you better be ready to compete. We need to be ready.”

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