McCarthy: UMass hockey is back

Minutemen sweep the defending national champions

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Kira Johnson/ Daily Collegian (2022)

By Colin McCarthy, Assistant Sports Editor

It doesn’t feel like long ago when the Massachusetts hockey team walked into the Mullins Center as defending national champions and got promptly blown out by Minnesota State over a two game series. A year later, the No. 13 Minutemen (2-0-1) returned the favor to No. 1 Denver.

The stage was the same, the location was the same, the only difference is that UMass was the team trying to make a statement. The Minutemen came in with a ranking outside the top 10, but they sent a message to the college hockey world: they’re back and they’re a force to be reckoned with.

UMass answered every question that loomed large heading into the season. It got an incredible two games out of starting goaltender Luke Pavicich, who seems like he earned a more secure spot between the pipes.

Scoring seemed like it might be an issue, but that’s been put to bed for the time being, too. The Minutemen have a deep forward group and even though there’s no clear top scorer, the weekend slate against the Pioneers (2-2) showed how many different skaters can contribute in the offensive zone.

What stood out to me the most over the series, though, is how comfortable the Minutemen seemed to be. And I don’t mean playing at home or with the crowd. I mean comfortable in the sense that they looked like they belonged in these games. It didn’t feel like UMass ever stole anything from Denver. You could argue that Friday’s game was uncomfortable in the third period and I’d agree, but considering the Minutemen already established a big lead to that point, the late Denver push was much easier to manage.

That level of confidence and belonging is something that I saw at times last season but not often. This series wasn’t eerie of anything from last season. It reminded me of the team that used to take the ice two years ago. During that time where the Minutemen just didn’t look like they could lose. It didn’t matter if their offense had an off night or if their defense struggled. During that year UMass just did exactly what it needed to do to win hockey games.

This series felt like that.

Did the Minutemen play better than the Pioneers for a full 120 minutes of hockey? Absolutely not. Not by a long shot. But they did control the game for 120 minutes. They scored goals when they needed to, played great defense, got some great goaltending and executed extremely well on special teams. Every piece of the puzzle just clicked.

I don’t know what transpired in the six days between UMass’ season opener against AIC and the first game against Denver, but somebody flipped a switch in between. UMass was a passive team shooting itself in the foot with mistakes in the first game, but that all got wiped away. The Minutemen just played sound hockey based around the identity that head coach Greg Carvel likes to instill in all his teams: strong defense creating offensive chances.

“I’m sure everyone will say the team made a statement but most importantly we made a statement to ourselves,” Carvel said. “I think this group created an identity this season … I saw so many positives tonight.”

This team looks like it has all the pieces to be a contender again. Not just in Hockey East, but in the national tournament as well. I think UMass will be ranked firmly in the top 10 nationally after how decisive this series went in its favor, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s certainly a long way to go this season, and two good games alone won’t be enough to consider the Minutemen as Frozen Four contenders. But, at least for the moment, I can confidently say that UMass hockey is back. And as John Buccigross famously said, “watch out.”

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