An in-depth look into UMass hockey in 2021-22

Minutemen eyeing a trip back to the Frozen Four for the third straight season

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Nina Walat / Daily Collegian

By Colin McCarthy, Assistant Sports Editor

It’s been less than six months since the Massachusetts hockey team celebrated its national championship victory in Pittsburgh. Now entering the 2021-22 season, the lineup is different, the expectations are higher and Greg Carvel’s goal is simple: repeat.

That task is much easier said than done, though. With so much turnover in college hockey, No. 1 UMass will take the ice on Oct. 2 with a very different group than the one that led it to the top of the mountain a season ago.

New leadership

One of the most crucial factors that will help the Minutemen make another deep postseason run is their leadership group — and the three skaters wearing letters this year could form a better group than those that preceded it.

Bobby Trivigno turned in his ‘A’ for a ‘C’ this winter, an honor fitting for the senior who was voted in the Hockey East and NCAA Tournaments last year. Trivigno started last season as a low-profile winger, but he begins this year as one of the early candidates to win the Hobey Baker award.

Colin Felix and Matthew Kessel are taking on assistant captain roles to complete UMass’ leadership group for the 2021-22 season. Felix is a senior whose hard work took him farther than head coach Greg Carvel ever thought it would, from a place in the lineup to the top pairing last year, and now assistant captain honors.

Kessel is only a junior, but all signs point to this being his last season for the Minutemen as well. Kessel was an NHL draft selection for the St. Louis Blues in 2020 and if the three-year plan Carvel laid out for him hasn’t seen any setbacks, he will be making the leap to professional hockey at the end of the season.

The trio combines to become a perfect blend of hard work, skill and experience necessary to lead both by example and vocally for a group with many new additions that weren’t a part of the national championship squad.

“I think as a leadership group [Trivigno], [Kessel] and I mesh really well together,” Felix said of the captain group. “We’ve been all on the same page and really trying to talk our systems to a lot of new guys this year, trying to talk about our culture and how we play. I think that’s a big part of getting everybody to speed.”

Reloading the backend

For as long as the Minutemen have been a dominant team, that success was primarily due to sound defense and a versatile backend. Talents including Cale Makar, Mario Ferraro, Jake McLaughlin, Marc Del Gaizo and Zac Jones have built UMass a reputation of sound defensive. hockey. These Minutemen defenders can provide offense from the blue line both 5-on-5 and on the powerplay.

So when Carvel expressed prior to this season that his backend is deeper than ever, that statement should not be taken lightly. This season there aren’t just one or two stars, but an eight-man group that will leave the bench boss with decisions to make every week as far as who to slot into the top-6.

Kessel will spearhead the unit. His size, toughness and two-way ability have been on display for the past two seasons, making him the prototypical defenseman for Carvel’s system. Kessel led UMass defenseman in goals last season, and for the majority of the year was neck-and-neck with Carson Gicewicz for most goals on the entire team. On top of that, Kessel’s sophomore campaign saw him be the second-best defender in his own blue line behind Del Gaizo.

Felix will also play a key role in the Minutemen defensive corps. The senior brings a lot of experience onto the ice. After an inconsistent start to last season, Felix turned his game around and became a staple of the top pairing, complimenting Del Gaizo’s play style perfectly and allowing the duo to dominate on the defensive end.

“We have a really nice combination,” Carvel said of the defensive group. “We’ve got big bodies with Kessel, Felix and [Slava] Demin … and we have really good skill level with Scott Morrow who’s 6-foot-2 also, so we have a really nice combination of size and skill back there.”

Expect Kessel to run the top line this season alongside Demin, while Felix heads up the second pairing. Senior could be an early candidate to lead the third unit, with Scott Morrow and Ryan Ufko filling out the top-6 while Aaron Bohlinger works his way back from surgery.

Murray’s net

After three years of healthy competition, the battle between Matt Murray and Filip Lindberg in net is over. Initially it looked like Lindberg would take over the full-time role ahead of his senior season and Murray would enter the transfer portal. But when it was announced that Murray was instead returning for his fifth year the writing was on the wall, and shortly after Lindberg officially elected to forgo his final year of eligibility and head to the pros.

Both backup goaltenders for UMass, Luke Pavicich and Henry Graham, are not ready to compete for a starting role at this point, so the net will belong to Murray all season barring any major changes.

“He already owns a lot of records here for goaltenders,” Carvel said of Murray. “I see [Murray] just get incrementally better and more mature and stronger, so I’m excited for him. He sat on the bench for a lot of games and a lot of big games here, and he only came back because it was a situation where he was going to play a vast majority of the games.”

Murray has been an anchor in goal and stepped up in the Frozen Four semifinals to help UMass defeat Minnesota Duluth and make it to the national championship game. Now he has an opportunity to help the Minutemen get back there.

Fresh faces

UMass brought 10 new players into the fold for the upcoming season, seven freshmen and three transfers. A lot of the group will have an opportunity to crack the lineup once they get accustomed to Carvel’s system.

“We do things different here, and it’s an adjustment,” Carvel said. “We’re kind of set on lines and d-pairs but I’m not totally comfortable with it yet. I want to see how we do against a really good team.”

Taylor Makar, Cam Donaldson, Lucas Mercuri and Matt Baker will be competing for spots on the bottom two-forward lines, neither of which has been set in stone to this point.

Between the lineup spots already solidified and the many that are still up for grabs — and will remain that way well into the season if history is any indication — it will be all hands on deck for UMass when it opens its season at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday against Minnesota State.

 

Colin McCarthy can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @colinmccarth_DC.