The Massachusetts hockey team needed its forwards to step up in the absence of Mitchell Chaffee, Philip Lagunov and Cal Kiefiuk on Saturday.
John Leonard stepped up for the depleted group in a big way. The junior erupted for a hat trick for UMass (19-10-2, 12-7-2 HEA) in its 5-3 win over UMass Lowell (16-10-5, 10-7-4 HEA).
Chaffee and his 16 goals missed the weekend with an upper body injury leaving the snake-bitten Minuteman offense without one of its best scorers. Lagunov was ruled out for the season prior to Friday’s contest, further diminishing UMass’ forward options. Then, to make matters worse, UMass lost the freshman Kiefiuk in Friday night’s matchup after a shoulder to the head broke his jaw, ending his season as well.
“The bench is a little light right now with experience,” coach Greg Carvel said, “and I thought it was a character win.”
Twice locked in a tie game, Leonard delivered for the Minutemen putting them on top. The most important of which came with 3:35 remaining in the game and UMass and UML knotted 3-3.
In a one-on-one with a River Hawk defenseman at the blue line, Leonard pulled the puck from his forehand to the backhand, skating himself past the d-man in the process, and unleashed a quick shot from in front of the crease to beat UML goaltender Tyler Wall’s glove and give the Minutemen the lead.
“I saw a full ice one-on-one and tried to take my ice, shift one way and go the other,” Leonard said. “Fortunate enough, got a little lucky maybe but we’ll take it.”
“John is an incredible player, its fun to watch,” Jake Gaudet said. “He’s been scoring goals like that all year.”
Leonard would complete his hat trick minutes later with an empty net goal. With a River Hawk defenseman draped on his back, the UMass winger chased down a puck near the top of the right faceoff circle. Then, at full extension, flicked the puck into the air in the direction of the goal and in.
The crazy part — even Leonard’s empty netters are exciting.
Not to be forgotten amongst his highlight reel lamplighters, Leonard’s first goal broke a second-period 1-1 tie. After Niko Hildenbrand forced a turnover in the UML defensive zone, he got the puck to Leonard out in front. The Amherst native’s first shot was denied by Wall but potted it on his second try.
Leonard easily could have had more on the night but narrowly missed on two more chances.
“He had three tonight,” Carvel said. “Probably should’ve had five.”
On one breakaway in the second period, Leonard went high, glove side and rang the post, having beaten Wall but come just inches short of another goal.
At another point in the middle frame, UMass was on a 5-on-3 and threatening to strike. Zac Jones teed up a shot from the high slot, Bobby Trivigno then shoveled the rebound across the crease to Leonard. Leonard’s one-timer looked to be in the empty half of the net but Wall—laying across the crease—gloved the puck, stealing the shot from the back of the net.
While Chaffee is set to return soon, Kiefiuk and Lagunov will miss the remainder of the year. Leonard will need to keep a hot streak–which includes a hat trick last series against Providence–going for the Minutemen to play deep into the postseason.
“Scoring a hat trick is pretty rare at this level, and he’s got two in two weekends of play,” Carvel said.
With three more goals on Leonard’s record, he now sits atop the Division I leaderboards for goals with 24—two goals more than second place.
With UMass needing a win and lacking the usual scoring firepower, Leonard proved why he earned a Hobey Baker nomination with Saturday’s hat trick.
“I hope he starts getting some buzz about Hobey Baker,” Carvel said. “I obviously don’t know the whole country, but I don’t know how many kids can affect the game like that.”
Noah Bortle can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @noah_bortle.