Well that was more like it. Whatever Toot did or didn’t do after the UNH embarrassment, the team came out last night against the Huskies and played much like they did against Merrimack last month, which is to say utter and complete domination for the first two and a half periods, followed by a final 10 minutes of solid defense and clock-killing when Northeastern went into desperation mode.
Every aspect of the game was leaps and bounds ahead of what I saw in Boston and heard in New Hampshire the last two games. The offense was relentless, the puck control impeccable. UMass could pass, UMass could penetrate the NU defense, UMass could block passes and shots defensively, and, most impressively, UMass didn’t just kill off Northeastern’s power plays – they dominated on the PK. The Minutemen played, for the most part, with discipline, letting the frustrated Huskies take the dumb penalties (particularly the game misconduct on Silva; it was nice to see an opposing player take a deserving misconduct for once).
Now, let’s step back and look at this objectively. Despite their valiant performances the last couple games against Lowell, the Huskies aren’t that good a hockey team. I’m fairly confident that BU, despite the rougher first half, is a better team than NU and will finish with a better record. In fact, I’m not entirely convinced NU will even make the Hockey East tournament. They simply lost too much talent between last year and now, and, with all due respect to Rawlings and Mountain, the drop-off from Theissen in net is pretty tough to overcome (and let us not forget, they were starting the lesser of those two goalies in this one, although Mountain certainly wasn’t the difference-maker). On top of all that, the Huskies were coming off a deflating overtime loss to Lowell, a game where they had all the momentum in the world but got burned on a defensive collapse in the final 30 seconds of OT.
Other things that worry me: the Minutemen continue to rely heavily on a) the same couple guys (Jimmy, Ortiz, Syner, and Wellman) and b) the power play, although even the man-advantage game scuffled badly during the 3-game skid. The Minutemen showed themselves to be adept at using their speed to draw penalties and, at least for this game, capitalizing on the power play chances. But this was a rare Hockey East contest where the refs appeared to call a pretty even game – UMass’s even-strength game needs to be better for the vast majority of the games in which they don’t get the calls. This is especially true with so many road games left on the schedule.
Overall, though, this game was a joy to watch, and it’s absolutely key that the Minutemen got some positive momentum going into the massive Lowell series next weekend. Matthews Arena, the fourth Hockey East facility I’ve gotten to see a game in (along with Agganis, Walter Brown and of course the Bill), lived up to my expectations and then some. It has a real high-school rink charm to it, reminiscent of my high school’s hockey rink, Fitchburg’s Wallace Civic Center (now owned by Fitchburg State College), only obviously a hell of a lot nicer. The Dog House didn’t have much to cheer about, but they remained into the game and even unleashed a sarcastic, 10-minute goal-scoring chant for McNeely’s goal in the 3rd.
Our seats weren’t great – when Walsh ordered “the closest you can get to the UMass bench”, they apparently took him literally and gave us the row directly behind the Minutemen, which offered a couple challenges. First off, since we’re not 14-year-old girls or under 5’6″, we were too tall to comfortably fit our seats without banging our knees into the guardrail directly in front of us. Also, our seats offered a limited view of the corners of the rink, which we attempted to remedy by standing, but we were promptly chastised by the senior-citizens visiting section behind us to our right, who did not appreciate our blocking their view of those aforementioned corners that nobody could see in the first place. Luckily, we were able to stand in the empty seats directly behind us (with our backs to the newly-built press box wall) without further complaint, and ended up with a great view of the action.
Still, next time we visit Matthews we’ll avoid the same mistakes and ask for the visiting student section instead, which was off to our left and quite impressive for an intersession road game. (We did start the U! Mass! U! Mass! back-and-forth chant with them, which was a highlight of our night; we also enjoyed when our own row made it up on the scoreboard and prompted a hearty round of boos from the Dog House. Admittedly, we love us.)
So here we go, Lowell for two next weekend, I’ll write about it as it approaches. We’re gonna know a little more about the fate of the University of Massachusetts and its ugly sister a week from now, and we’re glad to be along for the ride.