McCarthy: Breaking down UMass’ bottom-6 forward group

Minutemen starting to find consistent depth in third and fourth lines

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Luis Ramirez / Daily Collegian

By Colin McCarthy, Assistant Sports Editor

The Massachusetts hockey team relies on offensive and defensive contributions from the top of its lineup down to the bottom. No. 8 UMass’ (6-2, 4-0 Hockey East) top two forward lines are coming together, with Eric Faith slotting in on the first line to replace Josh Lopina, and Reed Lebster, Cal Kiefiuk and Anthony Del Gaizo completing the second unit.

Now the Minutemen are starting to find some consistency in their bottom lines, with Providence being the first series of the season that UMass didn’t change its bottom-6 from game one to game two. Ups-and-downs are still prevalent throughout the lineup, but familiar trios are forming.

Third line: Oliver MacDonald, Matt Baker and Ryan Sullivan

The Minutemen have a lot of sneaky potential in this third unit. MacDonald and Sullivan are both sophomores who didn’t make a tremendous impact in their freshman seasons. Sullivan came along over the course of his 2020-21 campaign and wound up in a fourth line role contributing to UMass’ national championship win.

MacDonald, though, did not find that level of success. He was in-and-out of the lineup during his first year, dealing with injuries as well as trying to make the transition to college hockey. MacDonald has gotten some quality shifts as a sophomore and is beginning to showcase his offensive talent, registering an assist off an odd-man rush against Merrimack.

Baker ties the line together with his veteran presence, but the graduate transfer still has a lot of catching up to do in his own right after a year off from college hockey. Dartmouth did not have a 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 concerns.

“I feel like I took that for granted,” UMass coach Greg Carvel said of Baker and Cam Donaldson’s year off. “That’s a really big hole to have to dig yourself out of and they’re now starting to throw good things on our pile, which wasn’t the case through the first number of games.”

Fourth Line: Cam Donaldson, Lucas Mercuri and Jerry Harding

Donaldson is slightly behind Baker in terms of getting his legs back under him after the long layoff, but he is starting to provide some quality shifts as well. At Cornell he totaled 56 points in three seasons, 20 goals and 36 assists. His puck distribution was seen in the Minutemen’s first matchup against Providence where he dished an assist on the only goal of the night. Like Baker, when Donaldson gets fully back into the groove of college hockey, he will be a valuable asset for UMass.

Mercuri has quietly shown a lot of offensive success early in his first season of college hockey. The freshman already has a goal and three assists and is the only first-year forward to suit up in every game this season. Mercuri provides a big body and has the ability to use that size to score dirty goals similar to how Lopina racked up points in the 2020-21 season.

Harding has been in the lineup recently as part of the shift caused by Lopina’s injury. He hasn’t stood out in his role but has more experience than the other candidates for the fourth line spot. Having a year under his belt makes Harding a reliable option who knows the expectations and system the Minutemen use.

Outside looking in: Ryan Lautenbach and Taylor Makar

Lautenbach and Makar are two freshmen with a lot of potential, but they need a little bit more time to get going before becoming staples of the lineup.

Lautenbach has suited up for three games, but only saw consistent minutes in two of those outings. He isn’t afraid to shoot the puck, however, recording seven shots on goal this season, with six coming in one game against American International. That kind of confidence will go a long way once Lautenbach acclimates himself to the speed of college hockey.

Makar’s name alone provides intrigue to many, but he is still only a freshman and has a lot of developing to do before he can become a game-breaker. Makar does have quite a bit of upside as a tall forward, and with improved footwork and strength he could really start making an impact later in the season.

The important thing to remember through all of this is that while there has been some consistency, lineup changes could come at any time – especially within the bottom-6 forwards where spots are never entirely secure. You could see Makar or Lautenbach jump back into the action at any point if Carvel feels they’ve earned a spot in the rotation.

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