UMass travels to Merrimack for final game before three-week break

Minutemen looking to grind out another win with short bench

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Nina Walat/ Daily Collegian

By Colin McCarthy, Assistant Sports Editor

There is light at the end of the tunnel for the Massachusetts hockey team’s injury situation. No. 12 UMass (8-4-2, 6-2-2 Hockey East) travels to Merrimack on Wednesday before a 23 day break, and it will return to action close to full strength with key players on pace to return to the lineup.

One forward will be back even earlier, though, as Minutemen coach Greg Carvel confirmed that Cal Kiefiuk will be available against the Warriors (6-8, 3-6 HEA).

Still, managing a short bench and a short week meant lots of rest time and recovery for UMass, who had an off day Sunday and only a 40-minute skate on Monday and Tuesday to remain sharp while not overexerting.

The days leading up to the midweek clash were focused on getting back to the Minutemen’s identity. Strong defense and special teams play have guided UMass for the past few seasons, but its weekend series against UMass Lowell was a bump in the road in that department. The Minutemen gave up four power play goals to the River Hawks through two games, an uncharacteristic amount considering they only gave up four all season before the series.

“We need to have more discipline, we took too many penalties last weekend [against UML],” Carvel said. “That was, to me, a very glaring part of the weekend … we need to have solid defensive play, we need to have good discipline and we need to grind out a win [on Wednesday].”

Bringing back Kiefiuk means the Minutemen’s lineup can return closer to normal and leaves Carvel with a decision on who to shift out of the forward group. If Kiefiuk returns to his spot on the second line Cam Donaldson will likely drop down to the third unit, potentially pushing Jerry Harding down to the fourth line to occupy one of the spots currently held by Ty Farmer and Taylor Makar.

If Farmer is thrown back into the defensive mix, he won’t be taking a spot from either of the two freshmen blue liners, Scott Morrow and Ryan Ufko have shown continuous improvement since the opening weekend and both are capable two-way defensemen that will be staples of UMass’ backend for a long time. Morrow in particular has become one of the Minutemen’s best players on the ice in his first year.

“I think every game he gets better with and without the puck,” Carvel said. “He admitted to me [Monday] that first week against Minnesota State was just like drinking out of a fire hose, it was for our whole team. But he’s come a long way and he scores every game now, scores highlight goals.”

Merrimack’s record isn’t indicative of how tough it plays the Minutemen when the team’s matchup against each other. UMass swept the Warriors earlier in the season, but both games were decided by one goal, and the second game required overtime. Physicality defined the over 120 minutes of hockey played, and Wednesday will be no different.

Coming away with a regulation win before the winter break will help the Minutemen continue to build momentum and confidence before getting some of their best players back into the fold. UMass fought through the short bench and still hasn’t lost a game in regulation since Oct. 3, but powerhouse Michigan is on the horizon shortly after the Minutemen return to the ice, and they will need both confidence and star power in Ann Arbor.

Building that comes from another statement victory that UMass will be looking for when it takes on Merrimack at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.

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