UMass working with ‘smoke and mirrors’ ahead of Thursday’s regular-season finale, playoffs

Minutemen look to lock up two seed with a win on Thursday

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Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

By Liam Flaherty, Assistant Sports Editor

The grind of a five-month, 34-game regular season has taken a toll on the Massachusetts hockey team.

With the postseason on the horizon and 33 games quickly fading in the rearview, the Minutemen (20-11-2, 13-8-2 Hockey East) are short on bodies heading into Thursday’s regular-season finale with Vermont, marred by injuries that have been a constant throughout most of their campaign.

This past weekend, with Cal Kiefiuk and Philip Lagunov already sidelined for the remainder of the season and Mitchell Chaffee out for a second-straight week, No. 9 UMass endured two more blows, as Jeremy Davidson (day-to-day) and George Mika (season-ending) both left games.

With a pair of defensemen – Kolby Vegara and Gianfranco Cassaro – playing up at forward to fill fourth-line duties, the Minutemen made do with what they had and managed to grind out a big-time win on Saturday, or as Greg Carvel put it after the game, they got it done “with smoke and mirrors.”

Leading into the regular-season finale prior to the start of the conference tournament on March 13, the Minutemen are looking for contributions from anyone and everyone that can make an impact.

With players like John Leonard and Bobby Trivigno, among others, playing increasingly consistent roles in the offensive zone, it’ll be key for UMass to have others in the lineup step up and support them.

“It’s such a huge impact in the game when you know what Leonard’s going to give you and what Trig’s going to give you,” Carvel said, “but when you can get deeper guys in the lineup just to body check, which brings energy, and chipping the puck in or chipping the puck out, those are the things that we need our lower-end guys – you can’t get scored on, you can’t take penalties. You can be even but try to have a positive impact on the game. The more we get our bottom guys going – that adds a lot, because our top-end guys are doing what they’re supposed to do.”

According to Leonard, the NCAA’s leading goal-scorer with 27 tallies, it’s all hands on deck now.

“We talked about it before the game, we have a lot of guys hurt right now,” he said, “there’s going to be guys that get into the lineup that need to step up.”

With a day less than usual to get back to full health and prepare for the next game, Carvel noted the importance of recognizing just how crucial these final days ahead of the postseason truly are.

“At this point of the year it’s more about mental preparation,” he said. “Just making sure we’re rested and ready to play, ready to compete and don’t take anybody for granted – it’s playoff hockey. Every win helps us secure an NCAA bid and home ice and positioning, so I hope the players realize how important this game is and come out and play a good brand of hockey.”

While UMass has already locked up a spot to host one of four quarterfinal series, it’s still unknown if it will be the two or three seed. With a win or tie against the Catamounts (5-22-6, 2-17-4 HEA), it will clinch the two. It cannot drop below three.

And although UVM is out of contention in last-place, it still poses a threat to play the role of spoiler, especially as it will be head coach Kevin Sneddon’s final game to wrap up a 17-year career.

Last weekend, the Catamounts did just that when they picked up their first two conference wins of the season, putting together a late season upset sweep over No. 16 Northeastern in Burlington.

“Kevin’s a good guy and a good coach and when that’s the case your players usually play pretty hard for you,” Carvel said. “I think that’s what you saw this weekend, that was their last home game for him, and they made sure that they sent him out the right way – I expect the same thing on Thursday.”

As for Chaffee, Carvel said he is “likely” to suit up for the regular-season finale. In 29 games, the junior co-captain is second on the team in scoring, boasting 29 points on 16 goals and 13 assists.

“I think everyone’s starting to get a little excited about coming down to the stretch here,” Leonard said after practice Tuesday. “Obviously, we’ve got one game to go – we have to take care of business.”

“It’s not ideal to have this few bodies,” Carvel said, “but I like the bodies that we have.”

Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. at the Mullins Center.

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