McCarthy: When is the turning point coming for UMass hockey?

It has to come sooner than later for the Minutemen

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Dylan Nguyen/ Daily Collegian (2023)

By Colin McCarthy, Video Editor

BOSTON — I know this is an inexperienced Massachusetts hockey team. I know that it’s hard relying on six freshmen to play big minutes. I get all those things, and I still believe this lineup oozes potential.

But here are the facts: No. 15 UMass (9-8-3, 3-7-1 Hockey East) is just above .500 and has lost a few different games that needed to drop into the win column. The Frozen Fenway loss against Boston College is the latest example of that. In terms of Pairwise, the Minutemen are on the outside looking in for the NCAA tournament, and that hasn’t been the case in a long time.

The point is, if a turning point is coming — and I do believe it is — it needs to get here pretty quickly, or UMass will have an unfavorable path to the postseason.

On Saturday, the Minutemen played relatively well, but certainly not good enough to beat the Eagles (8-6-4, 6-3-3 HEA), who aren’t a top end team in HEA. They’re fighting for a spot in the postseason just like UMass is, and in a worse position to make the NCAA tournament. The Minutemen shouldn’t have dropped the game, much less been outshot 37-25.

This is a growing theme for UMass, struggling against conference opponents. 3-7-1 is an abysmal record against HEA teams, and although the Minutemen did have an extremely difficult front half of its schedule, seven conference losses is not a good sign for a team that wants to be competitive in the national tournament, let alone the conference postseason.

It’s hard to figure out just how the Minutemen fell to this point, outside of the fact that they lack experience. Whatever the case may be, UMass is in a hole. It has a favorable schedule going forward, but it needs to find a rhythm quickly to realize its potential this season.

The problem with that is that three of the Minutemen’s next four games are against top-10 ranked opponents. One away matchup at No. 6 Boston University and a home-and-home series against No. 9 Connecticut. Those are not easy matchups by any means, but UMass can’t really afford to drop all three. If they want to remain in the hunt for the NCAA tournament, they need to start beating some of the higher end teams in their league. The sweep of then-No. 1 Denver was vitally important, but UMass can’t expect that to carry it all the way through to March on its own.

Here’s the good news for the Minutemen: the last eight games are all very winnable. A series against New Hampshire, Vermont, BC and Maine can all help build momentum towards the HEA playoffs, and a UMass team that has momentum is very hard to beat. UMass aren’t far removed from the 2020-21 season where the Minutemen went unbeaten for three straight months from Jan. 22 to April 10.

I still don’t think it’s time to hit the panic button yet. But even if UMass goes 8-0 in its last eight regular season games, that still may not be enough to make it a lock for the NCAA tournament. The Minutemen need to pick up a few more wins against ranked opponents to keep themselves in a good position for an at-large bid.

This is one of the toughest years of Hockey East I can recall and rely on a conference championship is basically a crapshoot for UMass at this point. The at-large bid is well within reach, but the Minutemen can’t let it slip through their fingers.

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