UMass set for first Hockey East clash in weekend series against Merrimack

Carvel and Minutemen looking to play with more desperation

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Will Katcher / Daily Collegian

By Colin McCarthy, Assistant Sports Editor

The whistle sounded to end Tuesday’s practice and the Massachusetts hockey team gathered at center ice to stretch and break down the day with head coach Greg Carvel. Despite having nothing else to go over, the door of the Mullins Center rink remained closed.

None of the No. 12 Minutemen (2-2) wanted to leave the ice, with some skaters staying on for over 20 more minutes to shoot.

UMass is coming off an exhibition loss to Dartmouth. Despite out-shooting and out-chancing the Big Green, the Minutemen lost key battles in both zones. They let cross-ice passes lead to goals against them and couldn’t corral offensive rebounds that would likely have led to easy goals on an out-of-position Dartmouth goaltender. The product UMass put on the ice did not sit well with coaches and players alike, and that was shown through its compete during and after practice heading into its weekend series against Merrimack (3-3, 1-2 Hockey East).

“I think our guys were a little guilty of not playing with enough desperation in that game,” Carvel said of the matchup against the Big Green. “That’s important for me to have desperation in your game, that’s when you’re going to be your best … I felt like we played with desperation against [American International], but we didn’t have it against Dartmouth.”

“I hope our group finds that urgency and desperation, we need it,” Carvel said.

Working towards that sense of urgency starts with hard battles in practice. On Tuesday, the Minutemen worked primarily on 5-on-5 game situations – particularly through zone entry and exits and puck battles along the boards inside the blue line. The focus on fighting hard in practice is crucial to UMass’ success on Friday and Saturday night.

“Playing the game like every shift [and] every puck matters,” freshman Ryan Ufko said. “That’s what it’s going to be this weekend especially going into Hockey East, every puck matters and every game matters.”

Carvel and the Minutemen are still trying to find a clear lineup to stick with as the season goes on. Skaters have shifted up-and-down, in-and-out of the depth chart and until more players in the group show themselves as permanent fixtures, building towards the UMass identity will continue to be a challenge.

“I’m still trying to get a handle on what we are,” Carvel said. “I don’t like the fact that I’m still shaking up the dice and rolling them to see ‘alright, here’s our lines today.’ I wish it would play out that it was obvious … I think in the backend it’s more so, obviously in the net there’s not a lot of competition there, which is fine by me, but I wish I could get our forwards straightened out.”

The top two forward lines are becoming more stable with Garrett Wait skating with Bobby Trivigno and Josh Lopina again and Cal Kiefiuk and Reed Lebster slotting in as the second line wingers with Eric Faith at center. Those two groups help set a more consistent special teams rotation as well, but the bottom-6 forwards are still very up in the air, leaving the Minutemen with less depth than they are used to.

Having already played HEA games this season, the Warriors are closer to finding their own identity than UMass is. Merrimack is coming off a strong weekend performance against Boston University, racking up nine goals in a pair of games and splitting the series with the Terriers. In last year’s series, the Minutemen and the Warriors each came away with one, and Merrimack is much stronger now than it was a year ago while UMass is still trying to find its footing.

“Where the team is at right now, I can’t even guess,” Carvel said. Merrimack always plays us real tough, very hard to play in that building, so it’ll be a good opening test for us.”

The Minutemen kick off their weekend series against the Warriors on Friday night in North Andover at 7 p.m.

Colin McCarthy can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @colinmccarth_DC.