UMass gets set to take on UConn with big Hockey East implications

The Huskies only sit two points behind the Minutemen

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(Nina Walat/Daily Collegian)

By Evan Marinofsky, Collegian Staff

Raise your hand if you saw UConn in a position for home-ice during the Hockey East playoffs this late in the season. Come on. Raise them high.

None of you. Figured.

The Massachusetts hockey team gets set to face-off with UConn — one of the league’s most surprising teams – in its final weekend series of the regular season.

UMass (19-10-2, 12-7-2 Hockey East) sits in second place in Hockey East, with UConn (14-13-4, 11-8-2 HEA) in fourth. Even crazier is they’re only separated by two points. Two wins by the Huskies would catapult them past the Minutemen.

“It’s very important,” Jake McLaughlin said. “We talked about it. We want to win out these last three games here and, in a way, we as a team kind of control our own destiny right now, so it’s super important because every game matters to win Hockey East here. So it’s definitely something we preach every day.”

But for coach Greg Carvel, this weekend presents the same challenge as every other weekend.

“You don’t go into games thinking about points,” he said. “You’re just thinking about ‘we have to play really well to secure a victory.’”

UConn’s propelled itself to near the top of Hockey East due to a hot stretch of late, winning five of its last six. They swept Boston University this past weekend and in the final game beat the Terriers 6-1.

“They’re hot right now,” McLaughlin said. “Compete is probably the number one thing we have to focus on.”

“They compete and they’re a team that’s playing with confidence right now,” Carvel said. “Just like every other coach, they probably came out of that game saying we outcompeted the opponent and that’s why you win, so we have to be ready to compete and be physical.”

In the preseason Hockey East coaches’ poll, the Huskies were projected to finish ninth, so they’ve exceeded expectations in many ways – something this UMass team knows a little bit about.

Before last year’s magical road to the Frozen Four, the Minutemen were picked to finish sixth in the 2018-19 Hockey East coaches’ poll, which was still a jump from where they’d placed the prior season.

“Last year I would say we had the underdog mentality, and that really pushes teams and drives teams to be the best,” Ty Farmer said. “They’re hot right now, they’re rolling, they’re winning games left and right. It’s important for us to show up this weekend and do what we do.”

The Minutemen are also coming off a pretty good weekend. Though they split with UMass Lowell, they outshot the River Hawks 90-40 over the two games. For the first time all season, the only red flag was in net.

But even with the rough weekend, it’s hard to find anyone in maroon and white who thinks Matt Murray and Filip Lindberg – both top-10 in the nation in goals against average – won’t bounce back against UConn.

“We have two fantastic goaltenders,” Farmer said. “They’re definitely going to step up and I have no doubt in my mind that they will. They both work really hard each day. Everyone’s going to have off games, off weekends so it happens. No one’s beating them up for it, but coach challenged them to be better this weekend so hopefully they carry us through.”

Carvel often sends messages to his own guys. Whether it be through healthy scratches, moving lines around, a benching late in the game or via his press conferences, he’s never had an issue lighting a fire under his players.

It’s something the veterans on the squad have become quite accustomed to and use it as a point to rally around.

“We all know who’s kind of in the spotlight as of right now,” McLaughlin said. “Everyone’s out here trying to make everyone better so whoever gets challenged, it doesn’t even have to be a guy who’s challenged, we want to make sure we push guys every day. As far as getting challenged goes, it’s a way to bring fire and a little bit of passion and nasty to their game so I think it’s great.”

An area of positivity for the Minutemen is the power play. Though only 1-for-7 against UMass Lowell, the power play showed encouraging signs. The Minutemen had much cleaner zone entries, a lot of sustained attacking zone time and ample scoring chances.

The next step: finishing.

“I just feel it’s been coming for a long time,” Carvel said of his man-advantage. “I think Jack Suter’s helped it. I think we got Leonard in a spot that really creates some options that we didn’t have before and I like it. I think Trivigno’s getting comfortable in front of the net. A lot of pieces are there but our structure’s been better and our compete’s been better to get the pucks and be able to stay in the offensive zone.

“Again, if we just start scoring on power plays, it would’ve put the game away probably on Saturday night.”

One way in which UMass could start finishing on power plays is getting Mitchell Chaffee back. The junior missed last weekend due to injury. He skated at practice on Tuesday, but Carvel still isn’t sure if he’ll suit up on Friday night.

“It’s a step forward that he’s going through a full practice,” the coach said. “Still it’s Tuesday, still too far away to know if he’s going to play.”

Puck drop between UMass and UConn is slated for 7:05 pm on Friday from Hartford, Connecticut, before the series wraps up Saturday at the Mullins Center.

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