Short bodies, Vegara and forward corps step up for UMass

The Minutemen used nine forwards most of the night

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Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

By Noah Bortle, Assistant Sports Editor

It’s beginning to sound like a broken record at this point: the Massachusetts hockey team lost another forward to injury against UConn on Saturday.

Dressing every healthy body it had, UMass (20-11-2, 13-8-2 Hockey East) found itself down one more player midway through the first. Off a faceoff, George Mika stayed on the ice, eventually hobbling to the bench with a lower body injury.

For a team whose fourth line started the game comprised of two career defensemen alongside Mika, the injury easily could’ve spelled disaster.

“I have no bodies,” coach Greg Carvel said. “We have nobody left. Everybody is hurt.”

Instead of resulting in disaster, UMass doubled down and exorcised its third period demons to pull out a 4-3 win over UConn (15-14-4, 12-9-2 HEA).

“Everybody, I’m sure, gives us a hard time for blowing that game last night,” Carvel said, “and that’s on us. But we’re doing this with smoke and mirrors right now and that’s a testament to the guys in the locker room.”

After defensive lapses in the final frame the past two weekends, Carvel challenged his team to play to its standard and his team did just that.

With only nine forwards playing heavy minutes, one might expect UMass to look sluggish come the third period. Instead of tiring and giving away the game as they had a night before, the Minutemen battled, scoring twice after the Huskies tied the game to leave Mullins Center with a win.

Rolling three lines for most of the night, it was the play of the forwards who didn’t make an appearance on the stat sheet who set the tone for the Minutemen.

Anthony Del Gaizo, Kolby Vegara and a rotation of Peyton Reeves and Eric Faith anchored UMass’ third line, playing high minute totals and providing the hard-nosed play UMass had been lacking.

None of those four appeared anywhere on the score sheet — the final line is dominated by the likes of John Leonard and Marc Del Gaizo — but the improvised third line did what was needed of them in its excess ice time, winning puck battles and making hits.

The most surprising — and perhaps the most electric — out of the group was Vegara. The sophomore is a career defenseman who was forced into action as a wing late Friday night after Jeremy Davidson’s injury. After starting Saturday on the fourth line, Vegara earned Carvel’s trust enough to keep getting shifts, even after the Minuteman coach shortened his rotation to just three line.

“Kolby’s been here for two years, he’s a committed kid,” Carvel said. “He made big hits, he knows what to do, he doesn’t try to go out and do anything he’s not supposed to. 10, 12 shifts tonight and almost every shift he gave us something positive.”

Apart from contributing value from an Xs and Os standpoint, Vegara’s play provided a jolt of energy to a team desperately needing it on the second night of a back-to-back, short so many players.

“For him to come in and step up, he got the hard hat tonight,” Marc Del Gaizo said. “That was unbelievable for him and we’re all really happy for him. He deserves it.”

Tied on points with the Huskies entering the game, the Minutemen needed a win Saturday night to take an inside edge on the race for second in Hockey East. Now any points against Vermont on Thursday locks up the two seed in the conference playoffs.

“That was a character win,” Carvel said. “UConn is one of the hottest teams in the country, they outplayed us last night. We needed these two points.”

The pattern of bouncing back after a loss is something UMass has grown used to this year as it’s  6-3-1 on the heels of a loss. The ability to respond and refocus is a strength Carvel has come to expect.

“It’s a huge statement to me about the kids in the locker room,” Carvel said. “When they get some adversity, they know how to handle it.”

Noah Bortle can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @noah_bortle.