Matthew Kessel and Ryan Ufko continue to gel as UMass’ top defensive pairing

Duo has been together since Minutemen’s third game of the season

Maya+Geer%2F+Daily+Collegian

Maya Geer/ Daily Collegian

By Colin McCarthy, Assistant Sports Editor

Matthew Kessel and Ryan Ufko aren’t the flashiest defensemen on the Massachusetts hockey team, but the duo has quietly become the longest running pair of No. 10 UMass’ backend, and they continue to get better with every game they play together.

Minutemen coach Greg Carvel opened the season playing Kessel with Slava Demin and Ufko with Colin Felix. But by the third game of the year, he pivoted to the Kessel and Ufko duo and that has been the staple top pair ever since after they received high praise from Carvel early on.

“I think [Ufko] and Kessel are our two best defensemen, and I didn’t know that until tonight, but I thought they were excellent,” Carvel said after a game against AIC on Oct. 15.

Kessel established his importance to UMass’ backend early in his college career, and last year he and Zac Jones teamed up to form the Minutemen’s most lethal offensive pairing. They saw time 5-on-5 and on the top power play unit, and their playstyles complimented each other very well. The two established a chemistry that allowed them to flow well on the ice and contribute positively in the offensive zone without sacrificing defense. If Jones pinched too low on the boards to keep a puck in the zone, Kessel was there to back him up and prevent an odd-man rush the other way.

That connection wasn’t formed overnight, though. Kessel and Jones were roommates who spent two years gelling together, and that familiarity created trust and chemistry. Since Jones made the jump to NHL hockey, Kessel needed a new line mate and is taking on a mentoring role not only for all his teammates as an assistant captain but even more for his freshman partner.

Ufko isn’t a highlight reel defenseman in the offensive zone like his first year counterpart Scott Morrow, but he is a strong two-way player with a high ceiling. In his last USHL season with the Chicago Steel Ufko totaled 39 points on 10 goals and 29 assists, showing how dangerous he can be with the puck.

It took Ufko some time to get acclimated to college hockey, and he did not have a strong performance in his first game of the season. Normally the freshman is very comfortable with the puck on his tape, but in UMass’ series against Minnesota State he made plays in the offensive zone that lead directly to turnovers. In his first seven games of the season Ufko only produced one point, but over the last eight contests he added 10 more assists and one goal, bringing his season point total up to 12.

That uptick in offense can be credited to Ufko’s growing confidence in himself as well as the growth of him and Kessel’s pairing.

“I’ve been liking playing with Ufko, I think we’ve grown a lot,” Kessel said. “I think he’s grown a lot especially in the [defensive] zone, we’ve been breaking out pucks a lot quicker. I know at the beginning of our time together we were stuck in the D-zone more than we’d like to be.”

Kessel struggled early in the season himself, not playing up to the standard he set during his sophomore year where he scored 10 goals and racked up a total of 23 points — both stats ranked high for defensemen across the nation. But once the junior started simplifying his game, more success came. Not always on the stat sheet, but as an impact player in the defensive end. Carvel demanded more from Kessel and things finally started clicking against Merrimack on Monday.

“He [Carvel] knows it and I know it too: I play my best game when I focus on the D-zone first and then go from there,” Kessel said.

Although he only has six points this season, Kessel remains a constant threat to contribute goals. His heavy wrist shot from the blue line is capable of beating goaltenders without a deflection, and when UMass puts big bodies like Josh Lopina in front of the crease the shot creates opportunity for those forwards to clean up dirty goals, something the Minutemen have earned a lot of over the last two seasons.

Ufko and Kessel come together to create the most rounded defensive pairing on UMass’ roster, and they will continue to thrive the more familiar they get with one another.

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