Flaherty: A season cut short, what could have been for UMass in 2020

An abrupt ending for Hockey East's No. 2 postseason seed

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Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Liam Flaherty, Assistant Sports Editor

Some things just come out of nowhere. They hit you like a train and there’s nothing you can do except sit on the tracks and await the inevitable.

That’s what happened on Thursday when Hockey East made it official: it was canceling its playoff tournament in an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. The news came less than 24 hours after each of the 11 teams in the league announced that fans could not attend their games.

Three hours after the statement from Hockey East, the NCAA announced that it was suspending all of its championship events. For so many in the world of collegiate sports, it was all over – just like that.

In Amherst, the abrupt ending to the season hits especially hard with the Massachusetts hockey team, which was on a mission to prove itself in 2019-20 but will suddenly never get that chance.

UMass was eager to get back to the playoffs after experiencing an unprecedented run to the national championship game a season ago. The Minutemen were just as eager to show that they are, in fact, building a program with staying power and that they aren’t just a team that solely relied on the likes of Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro to win; that their culture is the true backing of their recent success.

Before their aspirations were cut short on the eve of the playoff tournament, they had done just that.

Entering the postseason as the second seed after outlasting a tight final Hockey East stretch, UMass was set to host a quarterfinal series at home for a third-straight year against No. 19 Northeastern.

They were ranked ninth in the national polls and in the Pairwise and had guaranteed their spot to play in the NCAA Tournament for a second-straight year – a first for the program in Division I history.

Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

Going into the year, his fourth at the helm, coach Greg Carvel, who willed the program from five wins to 31 wins in three years, was more excited and nervous for a season than he’d ever been before.

After the success of the team the year before, the 2019 Spencer Penrose Award winner said he was “scared to death” of any sort of complacency within the program, but also eager to show the world that UMass hockey was more than two names; one of which was a lock to head off to the NHL before the title game even began and the other who came as a bit of a surprise when he opted to forgo his junior year and sign an entry-level contract two weeks later, leaving the roster with another hole to fill.

Granted, nobody downplays what those two now-NHLers did for the UMass program and what they accomplished in their two seasons. Not even close. But there was no denying the fact; they were gone.

“[I’m] excited for the challenge of maintaining the program from what we did without superstars in the lineup,” Carvel said after a preseason practice back in September. “Which we’re fully capable of.”

In hindsight, he was spot on.

The Minutemen didn’t have Makar and Ferraro in the back end anymore, so they needed skaters, both under and upperclassmen, to step up and help fill the void that was created during the offseason.

And they got that from a myriad of players.

Players like Jake McLaughlin, who, after being a liability on the ice as a freshman with a minus-17 rating, became one of the most reliable defensive players in all of college hockey, boasting a plus-27 rating as a senior. During his four years, No. 27 underwent a complete overhaul of his game and was the heartbeat of the Minutemen all year long. He was even named an assistant captain, further cementing his role as a leader in the locker room.

Another senior who had seen it all in four years at UMass and stepped up when needed most was Jack Suter, even after his place on the team was unknown in the summer heading into the season.

Players like John Leonard, who in the midst of a career-best season, was getting even hotter than previously imaginable at the perfect time. After a scorching-hot February, the junior Hobey Baker candidate would have been a sparkplug for the Minutemen in March – and perhaps even beyond.

His 27 goals were the most by any NCAA skater in the 2019-20 season and he scored nearly all of them in true John Leonard fashion: with a quick move, smooth hands, and an accurate release.

Like when he potted a hat trick against Providence, then did it again two weeks later against Lowell.

With 27 goals, he set a new single-season program record and also joined the elite 50-goal, 100-point club for a Minuteman in an all-Hockey East career.

Will Katcher/Daily Collegian

Players like Mitchell Chaffee, another Hobey Baker candidate, who was also enjoying a red-hot junior regular season, bolstering his stock as a future pro as NHL scouts routinely flocked to watch him play.

In 30 games, the junior-co captain recorded 29 points; second on the team behind only Leonard.

Players like Zac Jones, who, after coming into the season with a ton of pressure to fill Makar’s shoes on the blue line as a highly touted third-round NHL draft pick, became the first defenseman in UMass’ DI history to register 20 assists as a freshman.

Players like Matt Murray and Filip Lindberg, who lived up to the hype as the premier goaltending tandem in the entire country, splitting time in the net and battling back and forth for the starting job.

Players like Marc Del Gaizo and Bobby Trivigno, who were just getting back into their grooves and back to playing the style of games that have made them such effective players at the collegiate level.

Players like Oliver Chau, Matt Kessel, Cal Kiefiuk and Niko Hildenbrand, who all made big plays on a consistent basis that went largely unnoticed by the outside world. Even guys that rarely got playing time stepped up when they were given the chance.

The list goes on.

But among all of the personal achievements and storylines, the season didn’t go without hurdles.

There were season-ending injuries, slumps, and some continuous issues like the power play, along with a learning curve for the freshman, but like all roadblocks, they will only help them in the future.

It’s just going to be another seven months before any of them can put those lessons into practice.

And that’s the biggest hurdle of them all: facing the harsh reality of the hand that they’ve all been dealt.

For now, we’ll never know if the power play ever would have figured itself out. We’ll never know who would have earned the starting job between the pipes and if they would have kept it. We won’t know who would have stepped up as a younger player and created a “where were you” moment like Del Gaizo did as a freshman at the Frozen Four last April in Buffalo. We won’t know what the three seniors would have done in their final shots at taking home a piece of hardware in a UMass jersey.

In the middle of the day on March 12, the reality of the coronavirus immediately took all of that away.

Now, we’re left with a bunch of ifs.

But what we do know is that the program remains in good hands. The culture is firmly in place and the Minutemen won’t be going away any time soon.

With Carvel and assistant coaches Jared DeMichiel and Ben Barr at the helm, the standard of play is sky-high at UMass and it is sure to stay that way.

Hockey East and the NCAA were faced with a hard decision when they canceled the postseason, but they made the right choice following in suit with the four major U.S. professional sports leagues.

But it still stings. It stings knowing there will never be a 2020 champion in Hockey East or the NCAA.

It stings for the players, it stings for coaches and it stings for the fans that latched onto the program when it spent years in the basement and stuck around to watch it reach new heights. It stings for everyone involved in the world of college hockey.

Unfortunately, nothing can change that.

And although UMass didn’t get to prove itself in the playoffs this season, there will always be next year, and with the culture that Carvel and Co. have created in four short years with a solid recruiting track record to go with it, the Minutemen have proven they will be in the hunt for years to come.

Here’s to 2020-21.

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