UMass gets a boost as Mitchell Chaffee returns entering playoff hockey

No. 21 is back just in time

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Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

By Liam Flaherty, Assistant Sports Editor

The Massachusetts hockey team played four of its last five regular-season games without one of its most important and reliable offensive players: junior winger and co-captain Mitchell Chaffee.

After a breakout sophomore campaign, Chaffee played in the first 29 games of the season until he sustained an upper-body injury against Providence on Feb. 8. With a good amount of caution, No. 21 sat out the next four games, before returning for the final game of the season Thursday, March 5.

In his absence, while several other players endured season-ending injuries that created a severely depleted lineup, the Minutemen (21-11-2, 14-8-2 Hockey East) went 2-2, splitting series against No. 12 UMass Lowell and Connecticut, before the Hobey Baker candidate returned against Vermont.

With Chaffee’s return – the reemergence of a key offensive playmaker who throws the body around and leads by example – No. 9 UMass gets a major boost as it heads into the postseason, which kicks off on Friday with the quarterfinals of the Hockey East tournament against No. 19 Northeastern.

“After you skip four games, you’re going to go out there and it’s going to feel a little different,” Chaffee said of his return on Thursday against the last-place Catamounts at the Mullins Center. “But other than that, I felt pretty good. My body feels good and it’s good to be back out there, especially this time of the year starting playoffs it’s good to get a game in before playoffs start.”

Although coach Greg Carvel said he was pleased with his co-captain’s game following his first night back – a 1-0 win – he didn’t record a shot, and, on Tuesday, Carvel said Chaffee can be better as he continues to reenter the fold and knock off any sort of tentative rust from his four-game break.

“He was a dominant player in the first half of the year with his scoring, his physical asset and influence in the game, and we were happy that he was able to play and compete, but he can give us a lot more,” Carvel said. “I think, again, 10 more days off – he’s practicing better. We’re asking more of him in practice so I’m guessing it will translate to the game.”

In 30 games this season, the Rockford, Michigan native and undrafted free agent has racked up 29 points, good for second on the team, with 16 goals and 13 assists, a plus-16 rating and a trio of power-play goals. Over his three-year career, he’s amassed 95 points on 47 goals and 48 assists in 108 games.

While Chaffee’s scoring is undoubtedly important on a team that has struggled to find offense outside of John Leonard as of late, the power forward can contribute a lot more on the ice than just goals.

“Just physicality,” said junior Jake Gaudet. “He’s our leader. He scores offensively, he hits guys, plays the right way. He leads by example; that’s the way all of us should be playing. Any time you get him back in the lineup it’s going to be a huge bonus for us.”

As Chaffee gears up for his third collegiate playoff run, he’s just hoping to bring his own, unique style of play to the table to help dethrone the Huskies (18-13-3, 11-12-1 HEA) by any means possible.

“I’m just hoping to bring my game,” he said on Tuesday. “I play a physical game, I try to dominate down low, and that’s something that this team’s good at and I feel like I can bring that to team to be even better. Especially trying to score some goals and get the power play back to where it was.”

With that physicality back in the lineup to boost players such as Gaudet and Niko Hildenbrand, Chaffee’s return will shine brightest in the dirty areas of the ice where his daunting 6-foot, 205-pound frame allows him to win battles and wreak havoc on opposing players in their own zone.

“It’s just the forecheck – we have to have a good forecheck to be able to generate goals and its huge,” Chaffee said after practice. “Good offense starts from just helping out our D and we’re a big part of the defensive zone, us forwards, so that’s going to be a big key for us this weekend.”

“When we forecheck really well we’re a really hard team to play against,” Gaudet said. “I thought we did a really good job of that Thursday and it’s a ton of fun to play offense so the more you can do that, the more you can make it hard on the other teams’ D, then it makes a big difference for us.”

After last year’s national championship defeat and missing games with injury at the end of this season, No. 21 is eager to get back to postseason hockey.

“I think everyone is,” he said. “It’s that time of year and this is why we play. This is why we come to UMass: to try to win a Hockey East championship.”

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