‘Shame on us’: UMass gives up another late lead in loss to UConn

UMass has blown late leads in two of its last three games

Collegian+File+Photo

Collegian File Photo

By Evan Marinofsky, Assistant Sports Editor

HARTFORD, CT — Zac Jones left his spot in front of his own net and skated toward Carter Berger.

The Connecticut defender had the puck and was clearly looking to shoot. Jones spread his body out as much as he could to try and get a piece of the puck, but Berger’s shot zipped past the freshman and bounced around the front of the Massachusetts hockey team’s net.

Jack Suter was the lone forward left to make up for Jones’ daring decision. As the puck lay loose, the player Suter was covering, Kale Howarth, slapped the game-winner home with 7.8 seconds left in the game.

Though it was the most noticeable, it was far from the only defensive lapse by the Minutemen (19-11-2, 12-8-2 Hockey East) that led UConn (15-13-4, 12-8-2 HEA) to come back from 2-1 down with 1:32 remaining in the third to win 3-2.

“That’s complete lack of structure,” Greg Carvel said of the play. “They’ve got a guy on the back post, even the guy who score the goal, we were on him but just standing next to him. Not very hard to play against.”

The defensive zone structure issues reared their head on the tying goal, too.

Niko Hildenbrand and Howarth were tied up in the corner to the left of Filip Lindberg. Howarth kicked the puck to an open Marc Gatcomb – who was supposed to be covered by Jones – streaking toward the slot.

With Gatcomb and Jachym Kondelik bearing down on a 2-on-1, Colin Felix defended the pass and Gatcomb went right to the front of the net and backhanded a shot past Lindberg.

Jones lost his man and it cost him with 1:32 left.

UMass has prided itself all season on its strong third-period play. Whether it be a comeback, holding the lead or adding some insurance, there haven’t been many issues with closing out the final 20 minutes.

Until now.

The Minutemen experienced a similar fate – a blown third-period lead – exactly one week ago on Friday. They entered the third period up 2-1, proceeded to give up the tying goal roughly halfway through the final frame and then UML took the lead on a bizarre score with 27 seconds left on the clock.

That adds up to two of UMass’ last three games featuring blown leads, and losses, in the third period. Make that four points left on the table in a Hockey East that most resembles bumper-to-bumper traffic for first place.

“Yeah,” said Carvel when asked if he sees similarities in the third-period breakdowns between the UML and UConn losses. “Just not being able to stay above the puck and staying on the inside. It comes down to will a lot of times. Sometimes it’s decisions, sometimes its will. A little bit of both in both situations.

“Just not being smart, not staying above guys. That’s how you get scored upon.”

It’s bizarre to see this UMass team wilt in the final stages of the third period. The story on this team has been pretty similar throughout most of the season – no matter how they play in the first 40 minutes, they’ll always show up in the final 20.

Carvel sees a certain issue with his team’s abilities in the dying minutes.

“Our mindset to put a game away,” Carvel said. “I think part of defending is just standing on the right side of the puck. Ultra-aggressive checking forward and guys coming out of position and not staying. It’s real simple – there’s five guys for them on the ice and there’s five guys for us. If I stay above my guy, we’re good. That’s my mindset. You’re not getting around me to the net. I don’t care if there’s 10 guys out here, but you’re not getting around me. If all five guys have that mindset, we’ll be alright.

“But guys are like ‘oh well maybe I’ll get this guy – oh he got by me’ and that’s when you’re in trouble.”

It’s hard to imagine Carvel and company letting third-period issues plague them as they finish out their regular season and prepare for a deep playoff run in Hockey East and beyond.

But as of the past two weekends, it’s been an uncharacteristic sight to see.

Evan Marinofsky can be reached at emarinofsk[email protected] and on Twitter @emarinofsky.