Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Skillings: It’s do or die for UMass hockey

Can Minutemen overcome recent late game struggles to make a playoff run?
Matt Skillings
Daily Collegian (2024)

The No. 16 Massachusetts hockey team has come a long way from where it was exactly one year ago at this point. The Minutemen (19-12-3, 12-10-2 Hockey East) were exiled to the pillow fight games of the HEA playoffs in 2023, where they were annihilated by Boston College, and put out of their misery quickly after a disappointing season.

Now, UMass has re-established itself as a force to be reckoned with in HEA, finishing the 2023-24 season with a 19-12-3 record, making massive improvements on and off the ice to bring itself back into the national conversation.

But a troubling trend has begun to appear in the last month for the Minutemen. They had established themselves as a dominant third period team for 80 percent of the season, but both losses against Maine, the loss at UNH and the loss at BC have proven that they’ve gotten away from the resiliency that carried them to some of their marquee victories. Three of those four losses came after UMass allowed its opponent to take the lead in the final five minutes and the fourth was three unanswered goals from BC in the final 10 minutes.

Outside of a couple of outliers, the Minutemen have brought the same intensity to every game this season and have played to their potential for at least 40 minutes of each game. For most of the season, their lapses came in the first or second period, so that they still had time to play themselves back into the game. What’s happening lately is that they’re lapsing in the final minutes of the game, not allowing themselves the opportunity to avenge their errors.

Head coach Greg Carvel said heading into the Maine series that he cared less about where the game was played in the first round, but rather what team they would be matched up with. Because of the sweep at the hands of the Black Bears last weekend, UMass will head to No. 13 Providence as the underdog for its HEA Quarterfinal game, a matchup that favored the Minutemen in the regular season, when they swept the Friars (18-12-4, 11-9-4, HEA).

And in those two games, the Minutemen were at the peak of their strength as a third period team, as has been absent in the last month. UMass overcame a deficit in both matchups, winning the first with a game winner from Lucas Mercuri in the final minute of play at Schneider Arena, and the second with an OT winner from Ryan Ufko at the Mullins Center.

Providence scored first in both games forcing UMass to dig deep late in the games and use its resiliency to battle back.

So that is where the question arises: which UMass team will show up in Saturday’s pivotal game, and will it be able to re-establish its third period dominance?

My guess is that Carvel will have his team ready to go, because although they’ve struggled on the ice late in games, the energy and morale of the team hasn’t wavered. By all measures, this is a game the Minutemen are mentally ready to win, the question is whether it will show on the ice.

Outside of the Hockey East playoff seeding implications the Minutemen have battled in the last month, their late game struggles have affected their standing in the pairwise rankings, which determine whether teams will receive at large bids to the NCAA tournament. Allowing UNH to come back and win a couple of weeks ago, only defeating bottom feeding UMass Lowell in OT twice and not picking up a point against Maine have all dropped them to the 15 seed, right on the bubble. A win at UNH or even just being able to pick up a single OT loss in Maine would probably have the Minutemen up another spot or two and place less weight on this weekend’s quarterfinal game.

But as it stands, this is an absolute must-win game if UMass wants to receive an at-large bid. They may even have to win a semifinal game depending on how other teams do, but a loss is a certain end to the season.

“It’s win or go home so we’ve got to win, it’s desperation time,” Carvel said. “We put ourselves in this situation, we only have ourselves to blame or pull ourselves out of it and earn another game.”

Puck drop in the biggest game for UMass in almost two years is at 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 16 at Schneider Arena and can be streamed on NESN+.

“It’ll probably come down to goaltending and special teams,” Carvel said. “It’ll be an emotional, passionate game. Strap your chinstrap, it’s going to be one of those games.”

Matt Skillings can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter/X @matt_skillings.

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