That’s really the only way to describe a year where your absolute favorite sports team finishes 6-23-6. That’s a bafflingly ugly number, ain’t it? In perspective, UMass finished just six points ahead of Lowell, which had one of the worst seasons any D1 athletics program has ever had in any sport ever. The difference there was UMass’s 3-0 record against its vastly inferior little sister school. The Minutemen would win three other games all season – two against a pretty-bad Vermont program, and a lonely nonconference rout of Quinnipiac (hardly adequate revenge for last year’s heartbreaking loss which sent the Minutemen into a season-collapsing tailspin).
We all saw this coming, although some of us (i.e. this blog) saw a slightly less hopeless season ahead. While most critics rightfully saw an already-overrated Lowell squad losing pretty much every relevant player to graduation as a recipe for disaster, most were equally skeptical of a UMass team losing its five leading scorers to either graduation or the professional ranks, and UMass was thus picked to barely finish ahead of Lowell in many preseason rankings. Indeed, in many years, 16 points would be enough to doom UMass to miss the postseason, and only yet another awful Providence season allowed UMass the chance for a hard-fought two-game sweep against BC (again). The Minutemen managed not to win any of its final 14 games down the stretch. Their last win? Paul Dainton’s only career shutout victory, which we attended, the 6-0 thomping of Vermont that led the three of us to some misguided optimism about how far this primarily-freshman team had come in just over half a season.
Yet, for once, the long stretch of winless games down the stretch actually showed signs of improvement, believe it or not. As the schedule turned from the dregs of Hockey East, from the Lowells and Vermonts and Providences of the world, we saw the Minutemen jack up the caliber of play to match the opposition. With the notable exception of one weekend, during which the UMass men’s club hockey team apparently suited up and wore the varsity team’s numbers in a 17-2 combined clubbing at the hands of BC and ‘Mack, UMass played a long series of down-to-the-wire heartbreakers against the class of Hockey East – Merrimack, BC, Maine. Five straight one-goal losses followed by an easily-winnable tie.
In fact, making that weekend more inexplicable, the Minutemen played the class of Hockey East pretty damn close all season long. Even in that BC game, the Eagles were kept mostly in check until they broke it open in the waning minutes. In the three-game series against UNH and BU, the Minutemen pulled off two ties (again, both winnable games, but I digress), and kept the other games close enough considering the considerable blue line youth on display back early in the year. UMass blew leads against the Huskies twice at home (though their visit to Matthews was a pretty poor showing) too. All of these woulda-shoulda-coulda moments can come to a couple conclusions, not any of which are mutually exclusive:
1) These guys were young, like REAL young, and has yet to learn how to close games out.
There was a severe lack of experience at pretty much every key position this year for UMass. Doug Kublin led the blue line corps, but everyone else of note was a freshman or sophomore. Adam Phillips and Joel Hanley saw a huge chunk of minutes. Anthony Raiola was forced into a lot of action. Conor Allen and Colin Shea logged a lot of ice time. See a pattern? Outside of Kubbie, who really had any significant experience coming in? Darren Rowe played a bit, as did Mikey Marcou. The latter had a pretty awful season, but he’s also going on just one year of regular playing time, and missed a number of games this year to injury. The young D-corps got better as the season went on, but can we really expect/trust these guys to be able to know how to shut down bigger, more experienced forwards when the game’s on the line? Not yet, my friends. Not yet.
Likewise, the forwards, outside of Hobbs, Syner, Concannon, and Langeraap, were a rotating group of youngsters. The offense performed admirably in the absence of Jimmy and Casey and the like, but even those guys took until their sophomore years to develop into offensive leaders. Mike Pereira, Conor Sheary, Branden Gracel – all of them look poised to have great careers for this squad. I’m also high on the prospects for guys like Troy Power and Adam Phillips (as I’ve said in the past, I’m a big proponent of having a blue-line scoring threat like Irwin showed flashes of being) contributing in big ways offensively next year. Syner and Hobbs, while not as dominant as Marcou and Wellman were, are a dynamic scoring duo who I think will have a lot better support around them than their predecessors had (no offense to Syner and Hobbs themselves, who were part of that support). This unit will nonetheless require a bit more time playing together to really find their groove. The offense unfortunately did struggle at times this year, but again – it’s hard to imagine such a young team succeeding against bigger, more experience teams, when the Minutemen are already at such a recruiting disadvantage to the more established powers of Hockey East. The program is making strides, but it’s not there yet, and it’ll take a lot more sustained success if and when it wants to get up to that level.
On the flip side…
2) The results would have been even worse – a lot worse – without #31 between the pipes.
The Minutemen, as I noted in last year’s postseason recap, did have one important crutch coming back – a senior goaltender, one who has always been at least above-average in Hockey East, and one who’s had a penchant for stealing games on occasion. Dainton was true to form this year, posting solid numbers and seemingly playing his best hockey down the stretch run, including another strong showing in the playoffs at Chestnut Hill. Obviously, next year the training wheels come off, and UMass will be relying on Jeff Teglia an awful lot.
There are some bright spots to this. Jeff Teglia may have struggled a bit in his initial appearances for the Minutemen, but he nonetheless got some experience under his belt. When Dainton took over following Jon Quick’s sudden departure in ’07, he was a pure freshman with no collegiate experience, handed the starting job with only sophomore Dan Meyers behind him. Granted, Teglia’s “experienced” backup next year is Kevin Moore, similar to Meyers in clubhouse presence and leadership but slightly less legitimate as a “backup.” On the other hand, Dainton also didn’t have a young buck behind him competing for playing time. Tegs will have two freshman recruits, Boyle and Mastalerz, and the competition for the starting job can only help as a motivating factor.
Beyond that, though, it’s pretty well-established in the local media that Dainton was the prototypical “good clubhouse guy,” earning that “C” on his uniform in his leadership of the young Minutemen. Here’s hoping that this means he taught Tegs everything he knows (minus the whole “wandering around outside the crease to play the puck” thing? Please? My heart can’t handle three more years of this!) and maybe even offered some advice to Boyle and/or Mastalerz, too.
And who knows? Not to belittle the accomplishments of the program’s all-time saves leader, but couldn’t it be within the realm of possibility that one of these recruits (who, for what I can recall, all seem more highly-touted than Dainton was when he was recruited) could emerge as being better than Pauly D was? Is that blasphemy? This is a program that produced a top-5 NHL goalie right now in Quick. Sure, that was back when Dennehy was pulling in quality recruits, but goalie coach Mike Buckley is still here. While I think that the students’ chants of “Teg-li-a!” in that last weekend against Maine were frankly pretty moronic (that student article is coming in the offseason, I swear!), I still have a good feeling that the goalie situation with resolve itself sooner than later. (As in, before the bulk of the conference schedule starts next year. Fingers crossed.)
So, yeah. The walk through hell is over. It was one of the worst seasons in program history on paper, yet, unlike the baskettaball team’s season, the trend was upward nonetheless. Aside from Dainton, what is this team losing next year? Chase Langeraap finally started to put it together at the end of his career, and everyone knows that we’re heartbroken to be losing Kubbie, but Saunders was a frequent healthy scratch, Concannon and Lecomte are what-could-have-been stories thanks to lingering injuries, and Keane never really lived up to expectations.
Next year, we’ll see another couple blue-line prospects in Mike Busillo and the towering Oleg Yevenko. Between Yevenko and Phillips, the blue-line will finally have something we haven’t really seen much of in this program: size. Meanwhile, while losing Kublin, UMass will bring back a solid young corps who have improved throughout the year, with Phillips, Hanley, Rowe, Raiola, Allen, and Shea. With all those guys coming in, Donnellan hopefully returning from injury, and Mikey hopefully using his rough year as motivation to come back much-improved (being healthy from the get-go would help), hopefully the team can cover up the loss of one of the most consistent defensemen the team’s ever seen.
Likewise, offensively, unless someone unexpectedly bolts to the NHL like last year (highly unlikely), there are a lot fewer question marks. Again, Pereira, Hobbs, Syner, Gracel, and Sheary form the basis of a highly effective offensive corps. Rocco Carzo will hopefully use his strong finish to the season as a springboard to becoming a contributor offensively. Czepiel, Olcyzk, Filiou, DeAngelo, Power, and Kiley all saw playing time this year and have potential to be a strong supporting cast with another year under their belts. Shane Walsh and Zack LaRue will come in as freshmen with solid juniors numbers and a chance to contribute without the pressure this year’s freshman class had of carrying the team. Last-minute update: And you can add Joseph Manno to that list, too. He and LaRue both have some pretty impressive scouting reports going for them. And really, for Derek’s sake, it would be sick to have a guy named Walsh AND a guy from his hometown of Melrose (Sheary) on the same team, both doing well.
Do I think these guys will suddenly become the class of Hockey East next year? Of course not. Unless eeerrryone gets up and leaves, BC’s current crop of stars has one more year together, although I’m far less sold on Parker Milner than I am with John Muse. BU and Maine also have a significant amount of talent returning next year, and Northeastern could be frisky if their young stars can fill the McNeely/MacLeod void right away. UNH loses a massive percentage of its scoring and should be on the decline next year, and, while Merrimack’s days in the basement appear over for a while, they do lose some key seniors, including goalie stalwart Joe Cannata, and I just don’t see Da Costa turning down the limelight of the NHL as well. In the bottom ranks, I don’t see Vermont getting significantly better anytime soon, and who knows what to make of Providence or Lowell given their coaching situations. In other words, the middle of the pack is, honestly, a pretty reasonable expectation. I could see this team finishing anywhere from 3rd to 7th next year. There’s a lot of factors at stake. Given everything, though, improvement is the only logical scenario. The question is how much this team improves, and we will have to wait through another long summer and fall until we get to find out.
So that’s the year and the outlook in a nutshell. Now, as for the blog. This was my first year following the team as an alum. Half the year I was limited to watching choppy streaming video online from my apartment in Disney World, and the other half I got to experience the game from the student section a few more times (albeit at 12-16 bucks a game) with Derek and Matt and the gang. We also made a number of roadtrips, one successful (Vermont!) and a few less so (to Merrimack, as well as Matt and Derek’s trip to UNH, which I still need to visit). We will continue to follow the team next year, both from a blog standpoint and literally, as we look to cross Orono and Providence off our to-do list. We also want to make trips to Quinnipiac and any other New England venues the team gets scheduled to visit (Harvard? Cornell?).
That said, I founded Fight Mass to create a venue for the student section to band together, something I haven’t quite seen yet. I love that some of you have approached us about the blog, and your continued readership has been tremendous. Really, I could write about this all day regardless of who reads it, but at the same time, I’d love for those of you who do read it to continue to get involved and spread Fight Mass to your friends. I’ll get into it further when I write my student section piece (I swear, offseason, it’ll happen soon – I figure it’s the perfect thing to fill the offseason void), but I think part of the problem with UMass from a student fanbase perspective is a lack of organization. Without organization, a student section cannot build tradition, aside from “one random drunk guy yells ‘fuck BU’ and everyone else joins in, derp!” It was an organized, albeit small, group of fans that built the limited tradition UMass has (i.e. its chants, many of which are cribbed from other Hockey East schools, by the way), and even these traditions are falling apart (i.e. we don’t even say “how much time’s left?” anymore, people think the goal chant is “fuck fuck fuck fuck go UMass,” and other various fails one would expect from a Lowell but certainly not from a school of this caliber). I don’t want to just tell people what to do, because a) that will never work, and b) no one man should have all that pooowah. Instead, I want the students who know what’s going on to have a place to gather, and tell themselves what to do, together.
More on that later. For now, what you need to know is that myself, Matt, and Derek will continue to write for the blog, observers that we are. (Ben is welcome to continue contributing as well, if he so desires.) We have a few interested undergraduates who have contacted us about contributing. I’ve talked to all of them and gotten a writing sample from one, and I like the cut of all of their very different but interesting jibs. None of us is comfortable about “handing the reins” off to anyone, of course. I’m not entirely sure if that will ever really happen, because if someone with a 9-to-5 “real” job like Coogan can find the time to maintain a blog at a high level of involvement, we should be able to do so between the three of us with whatever employment we post-graduate scrubs can scrounge up.
How the blog will continue remains to be seen, but I envision the three founders contributing more the way we have so far: myself as the “big picture” guy, Walsh with the nitty-gritty hockey knowledge, Matt with his sharp wit and fury of a thousand suns fueling his various rants. Alongside that we see contributors as a chance for us to stay in touch with the student section, as we almost surely will be limited in our ability to all three of us commute all the fucking way to Amherst from wherever we happen to be when next season rolls around. For all we know, we might all end up closer to Boston (the other two already do live near there and I live slightly closer to there than to Amherst) and we’d catch the Minutemen in person more often in their road games out here. This is where the contributors would be useful. Again, it’s all up in the air. For now, if you’re a reader and interested in contributing, hit us up on the Facebook group and send us a message. And keep telling your friends, goddamnit! “Like” the Facebook group. It takes like 10 seconds. Really.
One more thing I’d like to say before the sun sets on our season recap is that the highlight of the year, for me anyway, was the chance to befriend Mark of Fear the Triangle. I’ve made it no secret that FtT is my most prominent inspiration for starting Fight Mass, and I’m pleased to announce that he’s also a great guy outside of his Internet persona, too. His blogging advice has been priceless and you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone with a more genuine love for this program and dedication for what he does. And on top of all that, he’s provided us with some tremendous beer recommendations to boot – even Toot gave him a shout out on senior night at the press conference. (Seriously. Read the “Road Trip” section on FtT if you’re going to a UMass road game ever.) We here at Fight Mass are proud to call him a friend and the UMass hockey community is lucky to have him.
So that’s it for the 2010-2011 season. Like I said, I’ll be offering my take on what’s wrong with the student section soon, and maybe the occasional update on our nationally-ranked men’s lacrosse team or the hopefully-imminent move of UMass football to the FBS, but otherwise, there’s not a ton to talk about in the offseason. I would like to take this opportunity to mention my forthcoming secondary blog, Six Lengths Ahead (tentative title, which will probably stick since I already started it and such) in which I will be publishing various musings, from Boston’s pro sports teams and other non-UMass happenings, to other pop culture things. Yeah, it sounds kinda Simmons-y, but hopefully with all the wit and none of the continuous references to the same three or four 80’s movies. Anyway, I haven’t written anything yet (I’ll probably start with a roundup of this week’s returns of Community, 30 Rock and Parks & Rec, or a look at the soon-to-be-done-for-the-season U.S. adaptation of the brilliant British show Skins) but rest assured that content is coming. Oh yes, it’ll be coming, hard and long (maybe not 3,000+ words long, but you know) all summer long and beyond.
As for the hockey team, the future is always brighter than the surface of a freshly zambonied ice surface. For all we know, Hobbs will head off to the Rangers early, all the goalies will suck, and the team will struggle along yet again. Or they’ll bolt out of the gate to a 10-2-2 record, then Cahoon Swoon their way to another low seed and early exit.
But maybe, just maybe, they won’t. And so goes the life of a UMass hockey fan. Call it masochism, call it madness, call it blind loyalty to an alma mater. We call it devotion. And one of these years, damnit, we’re bound to be right.
And so the question begs to be asked…
Is it October yet?
Your UMass Minutemen take on the No. 15 Minnesota Golden Gophers
So the Mass Attack begins the season with two in the upper Midwest against a ranked opponent. Sound frightening? Sound like the Minutemen are way overmatched? Why? Let’s see, the Golden Gophers were 18-19-2 last year, 12-14-2 in the WCHA. They finished 7th in their conference and were bounced in the first round of their conference tourney. Your Minutemen finished at .500 with a record of 18-18-0 (despite a MASSIVE Cahoon Swoon), 13-14-0 in Hockey East. They finished 6th in the conference and were also bounced in the first round of their tourney. Okay, so we’re willing to concede that Minnesota played a MUCH more difficult non-conference schedule last year, but even given that, this was a sub-.500 team, they certainly weren’t world-beaters.
Well, we lost some key guys. Yeah, well so did they. The Gophers return fifteen from last year’s roster (10 forwards, 3 defensemen, 2 goalies), that’s the same amount as your Minutemen who return 10 forwards, 4 defensemen, and 1 goalie (not included are Anthony Raiola, who was redshirted, and Kevin Moore, who has yet to play a minute in his two years with the team). Among the Gophers’ losses were their top two point scorers, Tony Lucia (11G/17A/28Pts) and Jordan Schroeder (9G/19A/28Pts), as well as two of their top four defensemen (David Fischer and Kevin Wehrs). However, the Gophers do return Mike Hoeffel (14G/10A/24Pts/7PPG), their top goal scorer and top powerplay goal scorer, from last year, along with top defensemen Cade Fairchild (4G/21A/21Pts) and Aaron Ness. Also back is forward Jay Barriball, who will be their captain this year. He played only five games last year before receiving a medical redshirt due to a season ending knee injury. Although Barriball hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in the last three years, he could always return to the form of his freshman year, when he put up 20 goal, 23 assist, 43 point numbers. Minnesota also returns both starting goalie Alex Kangas (16-15-1, 2.61 GAA, .911 save%) and backup Kent Patterson (2-4-1, 3.10 GAA, .901 save%).
The Mass Attack’s depletion is a little more severe. Brace yourself, we’re about to drag up some memories; we’ll try to make this as quick as possible. Gone are: the top 5 point scorers from last year: James Marcou (11G/40A/51Pts), Casey Wellman (23G/22A/45Pts), Justin Braun (8G/23A/31Pts), Will Ortiz (13G/13A/26Pts), and Matt Irwin (7G/17A/24Pts); three of last year’s top four blue-liners: Braun, Irwin, and Martin Nolet (5G/4A/9Pts/59PIM); and a true heart and soul guy, great leader, and fantastic P.J. Axelsson-esque 2-way forward in Brett Watson (3G/6A/9Pts). Key returning skaters include last years no. 6 point scorer, T.J. Syner (8G/12A/20Pts), as well as defensemen Mike Marcou (7G/3A/10Pts) and Doug Kublin (we’ll get to his importance later on). Also returning is the man who is now undeniably, unquestionably the most important player on the team. That man is Paul Dainton. Dainton had the best record of his career last year (15-15-0), but otherwise had his statistically poorest season (3.08 GAA, .901 save%). Compare this to the numbers from his freshman (12-14-6, 2.56 GAA, .911 save%) and sophomore (12-14-1, 2.45 GAA, .913 save%) seasons. If the Minutemen are to succeed this year, Dainton needs to prove last year was an outlier and continue the trend of the previous two years (something in the 2.40 GAA, .920 save% range would be fantastic, but I’d be very happy with something like 2.60, .910).
Since both these teams lost a lot, it stands to reason that they are both pretty young. The Minnesota roster features 10 freshmen (6 forwards, 4 defensemen) and UMass has 13 (8 forwards, 4 defensemen, 1 goalie). The quality of recruits may be where the Gophers have the edge. UMass is counting on guys like Troy Power, Eric Filiou, Peter DeAngelo, and Michael Pereira. And these guys are all solid recruits. But if you google the names of the Minnesota freshmen, you are likely to find a professional scouting report on all of them. One in particular, 6’4” 188lb. center Nick Bjugstad, was the 19th overall pick of the NHL draft this year. He supposedly has good speed and vision and a fantastic shot to go along with his size. So, yeah, there’s that. But prospects are only prospects and no one knows how well they’ll do; just ask Danny Hobbs. (Incidentally, Danny Hobbs, you looked very, very good in the exhibition game, and we really need a guy like you to step up and shine now that Jimmy and Casey are gone. So if you could do that, we’d really appreciate it.)
There is one more reason to be excited for this season opening series, and that is this: Doug Kublin does not have mono. Allow me to explain how important Doug Kublin is to the UMass Minutemen. He played 25 games last year. In those games, the Mass Attack was 16-9-0. In games without Doug Kublin in the lineup, the Minutemen were 2-9-0. Stark contrast? Yes, but it goes deeper than record. In the 25 games the Manlius, NY defenseman played, the Minutemen averaged 3.08 goals against. In the 11 games he missed, 3.64 goals against! Almost half a goal more per game! Every 2 games you play without Kubbie, you spot the opposition a goal. So ignore the fact that Doug Kublin has career scoring numbers that look like your mother’s (1G/5A/6Pts in 74GP); he is a plus player and vital to this team and if Paul Dainton needs to stand on his head and get numbers like those mentioned above to give this team a shot at going anywhere, Doug Kublin needs to be in the lineup and on the ice to give him a fighting chance.
So there it is, my vehement defense of our beloved Mass Attack’s chances this weekend. It’s gonna be tough and it ain’t gonna be pretty, but damnit, our freshmen look good and our vets look energized and if we could steal some wins this weekend we could have a dangerous team on our hands that just might think it’s good enough to go somewhere. And it might shut up Roman Augustoviz, whose tweets are some of the most annoying on the planet. Go ahead, check them out, I dare you. @eyeonupuk do it.
Also: Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach Don Lucia was a hoodrat. Now you finally know that.
So… yeah, let’s get back at it. Is it Friday yet?
~Update: Apparently Eddie Olczyk’s injury is more severe than my “source” stated. According to Dick Baker, Olczyk will likely miss the Minnesota series, as will freshman Troy Power, who sustained an undisclosed injury in practice on Tuesday.
Hockey season is just about upon us! While our boys on the gridiron were busy eking out a win at Stony Brook (in a surefire trap/letdown style game), the hockey team is conducting scrimmages. Fear the Triangle and MassLive’s Dick Baker have been the top sources for the latest info from a hockey standpoint as the season nears, and I advise y’all to keep following those news sources. Baker pretty much reports any tiny little thing he learns about the team, from Danny Hobbs looking like he’s added muscle (a scary prospect for anyone who’s seen the guy in person; he was already pretty big) to Chase Langeraap looking to be this year’s Will Ortiz and escape the underperformance and injury woes.
Meanwhile, as I battle the notorious swarms of lovebugs down here in still-sunny Florida, my cohorts up north are getting ready for the annual preseason tilt in the practice rink. Matt and Derek will be the eyes and ears of the blog for the first semester this season, and I’m relying on them to offer first-hand commentary on the team and the student fanbase. Now, let’s be realists, kids. This team isn’t going to compete for the Hockey East title. Hell, being in the discussion for home ice in the playoffs would require a miracle. That being said, there are enough x-factors on this team that simply writing them off would be foolish. A senior goaltender with stand-on-his-head capability as Dainton showed at times last year cannot be ignored. There are players like Keane, Hobbs, and Langeraap who have underperformed as sideshows to the Jimmy & Casey show and have yet to live up to the potential we heard about when they first arrived. The defense is the biggest question mark. Some would say that an already-weak defense lost some of its only good pieces. My counter is that our defense was never good to begin with, and that fresh blood might be a good thing.
In fact, that, to me, is the ultimate theme of this year from the optimist’s perspective: fresh blood, a fresh start for a team that started with so much promise last year and ultimately fell victim to the success of its key pieces. That is to say, the talent level may have dropped, but I really think lack of talent wasn’t what doomed the 09-10 Minutemen. It was lack of preparedness to handle success, something Toot Cahoon is still learning — understandably, for a program that, in all honesty, is still getting used to the idea of competing for a Hockey East title on a regular basis. It was the inability to handle the pressure of being nationally-ranked and on TV, or, far more detrimentally, the constant distraction of having NHL scouts preying on Wellman, Marcou, and Irwin. Let’s be frank: UMass’s program, and Cahoon’s staff, weren’t able to ward off the scouts the way a York or a Parker or a Umile have been doing for years. That’s part of building a program, I think: dealing with success. Unfortunately, because UMass isn’t at that level, success isn’t going to come as frequently, and so the opportunity to learn how, as a school, to avoid these distractions comes less frequently as well.
That’s not to excuse the piss-poor play of the team last year, of course. These guys, especially the ones who aren’t being tempted with six- and seven-digit salaries, have to be able to carry their end of the bargain. Now that the scouts and agents will (presumably) be absent, it’s put-up or shut-up time for these guys. If that whole “too many distractions” excuse turned out to be erroneous (and/or the injury woes of guys like Langeraap persist), then yeah, it’s probably gonna be a long-ass year. But, to take a quick detour through Simmons-ville, this team just might have Ewing Theory potential, contingent, of course, on Dainton being strong in net, the defense taking a big step forward, aforementioned underperformers performing, and freshmen breaking out the way Marcou and Wellman did a few short years ago. A lot to ask for? Sure. But this is sports, and we watch because these are the kinds of things that happen in sports to keep them from being predictable. Toot’s recruiting core of Teglia, Pereira, Gracel, Power has a bright future, I’m fairly confident. But honestly, if there was ever a season where the youngsters were gonna get a chance to shine sooner than later, it’s this year.
Whether this team is out of contention by New Years’ or surprising everyone in March, though, one thing’s for sure: today, hockey is fuckin’ back, and we couldn’t possibly be happier. 😀
P.S. Consider this a “soft preview.” We’ll have more on UMass, and on the rest of Hockey East, between the preseason game and the official season-opener, of course.
Well, another weekend, another disappointment for UMass athletics. The 12th-ranked men’s lacrosse team managed to falter on the road to an inferior Yale team, killing any sort of mome…
Hold the phone.
What’s this you’re wharrgarbl-ing on about?
Hockey SWEPT Maine? Basketball BEAT Rhode Island?
….PLAYOFFS? You can talk to me about playoffs, because both teams won a game (and then, in hockey’s case, another game)?!
Okay, so we at Fight Mass will admit, we had higher hopes for both of these teams than “barely sneaking into their conference tourneys on the last day of the season.” Particularly after basketball beat Memphis and looked poised to at least improve on last year’s in-conference performance, and after hockey got up to #9 in the country with the harder half of their schedule seemingly in the rear-view mirror.
Regardless, the Mass Attack took advantage of Scott Darling’s mysterious suspension and roughed up Shawn “The New Wilson” Sirman two nights in a row, then had to withstand the storm of a furious comeback bid by the Black Bears last night, and nearly doubled their all-time Alfond win total in a 26-hour span. The offense woke up again by running through the points, with Justin Braun and Matt Irwin exploding onto the scene in a manner eerily similar to last year’s near-shocker at Matthews Arena. Paul Dainton was magnificent in holding Maine’s potent offense to 5 total goals in two nights. In what can only be described as “Derek being proven triumphantly right,” the defense gelled around the return of Doug Kublin from mono. And Brett Watson of all people provided two more goals.
So yeah, next weekend, UMass gets to return to the Conte Forum, where we’ll likely see the bizarre sight of a noticeable BC student section at home against the Minutemen. The Iggles haven’t played a truly meaningful game in a couple of weeks now and are, naturally, considered the runaway favorites in the series. However, if the Minutemen play as well as they did last weekend, and are able to catch a couple breaks and ride the momentum of this Maine sweep, and Dainton is on his game…okay, that’s a lot of if’s. But “if” is a fun word to toss around when, just a few days ago, things were as grim as they were. There’s hockey yet to be played, and that’s all we can ask for.
Meanwhile, the basketball team (unlike hockey, those bastards) send out the seniors in style, continuing the annual tradition of ruining Rhody’s season. This is the third year in a row; two years back, the Minutemen dragged URI kicking and screaming into the NIT (and then damn near won it). Last year, UMass marched into the Ryan Center and made little Jimmy “Date Rape Baby” Baron cry on his senior day, the game we will always know as the C-Lowe/Matty Glass Game (I could watch that Glass pick on Ulmer every single day until the end of time). And now, the year in which the gap between the teams is the greatest, where URI is a win away from the NCAA Tournament and UMass needs a win just to make the conference tourney in which only 2 of 14 teams miss it, and yet history just continues to repeat itself with these two. If the roles were reversed, I think we might hate URI even more than we hate BC here. And we hate BC a lot.
Honestly, it wasn’t a pretty game. At one point, when the teams were trading fast-break misses back and forth, someone near me likened it to a hockey game, with the near-misses coming fast and furious – only there’s no goalies in basketball, and the scores aren’t supposed to be that few and far between. The officiating — horrendous, but it was bad both ways, and we’re used to that by now. And the thing that struck me the most was that URI really does not have a go-to guy. They’ve got a lot of pretty good players, sure, but they had no answer for Ricky Harris, who woke up in a big way after a just-okay first half. It’s worrisome that the future of this team will bank on someone (Freddie? TV?) stepping up and becoming the new face of the team next year, and although I think that taking the Ricky crutch out of the equation will speed up the process, there’s no doubt that he will be missed. 3rd all time in school history in scoring, no matter how you look at it, is fantastic. Ricky’s the one guy who played for all four of my years at UMass, and for that, I’m certainly grateful.
The URI student section was impressive (although not unexpected given that this is pretty much the only sport they have), but I saw hope for us as well. Sure, a number of kids were coming over from the Rec Center to grab t-shirts and promptly leave, but for the most part, I felt like kids were into it. They should definitely try to schedule more Saturday afternoon games next year if that’s at all possible; this was definitely the best student section of the year even having to compete with the Blarney Blowout over in town, and the end of the game was as loud as I’ve seen the Mullins for basketball in quite some time. Hopefully the kids who came out for this one were sold on this team’s potential and will be more inclined to see more games next year as a result, but, of course, the guys need to win games to attract fans, simple as that.
And so now the Minutemen survive to play Tuesday at Charlotte, a team in freefall mode, and whom UMass owes some revenge from a few years back. At the very least, Ricky gets one more game, and the freshmen get their first taste of playoff basketball together. This can only be a good thing.
Unlike hockey, whose expectations were understandably a lot higher (both at the beginning of the year and, especially, after their stellar first half), basketball’s fate for much of year has been a first-round road game and likely exit from the A-10 Tournament. A strong showing against Charlotte, and especially a first-round shocker (and I can’t stress enough how due this team is to be on the other side of that equation), could do wonders for this team going forward.
And if they lose by 30 in Charlotte? We’ll always have that senior night. Sad to think I will never again set foot in the Mullins Center as a UMass student, but the memories from my tenure here will live forever, and my entry into the alumni club – my graduation to the other side of the arena (not that I won’t be general-admissioning it up and joining the student fray for a few more years, naturally) is an exciting prospect that is just beginning.
So, not to crib that whole “live together, die alone” theme that Rocks has been using lately, but the countdown to the weird red hieroglyphs and the accompanying disaster has been, for the moment, put on hold. UMass typed in the Numbers and hit execute. Now, the road ahead is wrought with challenges. But for at least one more week, there is a road ahead.
Before this post, some business: First off, we’ve had an absolute explosion of new visitors in the last few days, undoubtedly thanks to our self-pimping on Goggles’s/Hamel’s/my event page for the UMass-BC game on Facebook. I just want to thank you all for checking us out and we hope you keep following the blog for the rest of the season and beyond, and again, contributors are always welcome so if you want to write for us in any capacity, big or small, contact one of us through here or Facebook or wherever. And please spread the word. We’re trying to make this about the student body here, something I think gives us a unique perspective as opposed to the other college hockey blogs out there (not that we don’t like their angles – we’re just filling an empty niche). As soon as our lazy asses get around to it we’ll be pimping the blog out on bulletin boards around campus, but word-of-mouth is always nice too. We’re not doing this for money or for our own careers – we just want our work to get read, and to open discussions.
And one more thing: Welcome aboard Ben, a.k.a. “Flag Guy!” We’re lovin’ your contributions so far.
So halfway through tonight’s Xavier-UMass basketball game, with X up 50-33 and with all the momentum in the world, I said to nobody in particular, “Let’s just make it respectable. That’s all I ask. Get it to single digits, make a run, show us something.”
It started reasonably enough, with Vinson and Riley knocking down a few shots and UMass up 13-10. And then Big City checked into the game and proceeded to play zero defense, Xavier got away with a vicious trip on someone (Gurley, IIRC) and everyone fell apart as the Musketeers went on a monster run to seemingly put the game out of reach before the 10 minute mark of the first half. The Gurley Show looked like it needed to be cancelled. Ricky Harris looked…old. Vinson disappeared. “Here we go again,” we groaned. “Is it Friday yet?” we groaned. It was so bad that the biggest applause came when the Hoop Band decided to reveal that they have, in fact, learned how to play not one but THREE Lady Gaga songs (Bad Romance, Paparazzi and Poker Face). Sidenote: This is the greatest moment for the Hoop Band since they started playing “Army” by Ben Folds last year.
Then, lo and behold, UMass came out of the halftime locker room possessed. Gurley and Riley stopped taking stupid 3’s. Ricky started to actually knock down shots. Javorn Farrell became a beast on both ends of the floor, as did TV. UMass was hustling defensively. Even City looked more like the guy we saw in the Memphis game, shedding the “Big Shitty” label if only fleetingly. People like Sean “Hov” Carter and Big City were – gasp – actually hitting free-throws.
This is the UMass team we want to see from here on out. This is the up-tempo, aggressive, drive-and-dish offense Kellogg wants to run. This is the energetic defense these guys need to start using. This is what DK and Walberg are building here in Amherst, a team that could develop into a serious A-10 title contender and bring basketball glory back to the Pioneer Valley. UMass erased that 17-point deficit, and even held a lead in the later stages of the game! Hell, that’s better than T-Fraud’s teams did last time Xavier was in town a couple years ago, and we were good back then!
Ultimately, and somewhat predictably, the machine ran out of gas – Xavier showed their combination of experience and young talent, pulling away with a big run as the defense came together to shut down Ricky, Gurley, et al. There were still some rough edges, sure, and Xavier shot itself in the foot with careless turnovers to help fuel the run. But for once, the Mullins faithful finally saw first-hand for the first time (unless they were in Boston for the Memphis game) flashes of the potential this team has. Remember, Farrell’s a freshman. Riley’s a freshman. Vinson’s a freshman. These guys are only going to get smarter, stronger, more efficient, more adjusted to the offense they’re trying to run.
Until tonight, and even through the first half, I was concerned about the progress this team was making. I’ve conceded that the gelling of this team probably won’t end up happening quickly enough to rescue their A-10 tournament hopes, but I was getting to the point where I actually felt this team was regressing. But they heeded my call. They showed me something. And that’s all you can ask for in a rebuilding year.
Baby steps. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the team keeps taking them, in a forward direction, from here on out.
So yeah, Friday. BC. About that…I’ll be hitting up the Motion City Soundtrack concert tonight (Thursday) in Hartford, and between that and classes I prooobably won’t have time to write anything before the BC game, or, for that matter, Saturday’s annual URI road-trip. Maybe the other guys will having something to say, but otherwise, fear not, there’ll be plenty to say after the games, good or bad. Until then, all I have to say is…Friday, PACK THE DAMN MULLINS CENTER! (as if it even needs to be said!) And as for Saturday: this.
It will never, ever, ever get old.
Well hey, it’s been a couple days, hasn’t it? Well, we’ll admit, as students, there’ll be weeks like this one (the first “real” week of school of the semester) where we don’t have much to say in the middle of the week. Deal with it.
First of all, a special shout-out to Sam and Neil, the sports directors at WMUA and co-hosts of its Sportsline program, for giving me a couple minutes to plug the blog yesterday. Matt was there too, but there was already a shortage of microphones in a very crowded master control room. Anyway, I’m hoping that now that I finally can do the show without a total scheduling conflict, I’ll be able to contribute this semester with some hockey and basketball talk (and MLB when that comes around). SportsLine airs 4:30-5:30 on 91.1 FM WMUA and you can stream it with the link in our links section.
Now that the name-dropping is out of the way, in less than an hour, the Mass Attack will take to the ice against the defending champions, and the team I followed throughout high school, the BU Terriers, for the rubber match of their three-game season series. For the first time, I will not be behind a microphone for this one, having called both the thrilling 3-2 victory at the Mullins Center and the embarrassing 7-3 debacle at Agganis a few weeks back for WMUA. Tonight, sadly, with no bus trip being coordinated and with BU’s exorbitant ticket prices being a little too much for our college-kid budgets to absorb, we’ll be stuck listening or streaming the game from the warm comforts of the North Apartments. Luckily, if you haven’t listened to a UMass game all season, the new guys, Hennessey and Hines, are a couple of experienced hockey broadcasters with delightful voices and great chemistry, enough so that we’ll let slide the occasional “C.J. Snyder.”
So what can we expect tonight? BU has certainly been decidedly not bad this second half of the year so far, although you have to wonder how much of their success is contingent on the fact that the Terriers are a motivationally-challenged team which has played its archrival, in what is (in our Hockey East-tinted glasses) the fiercest rivalry in all of college hockey, twice, once at Fenway Park and once on enemy ice. This, by the way, is also a caveat to the “hey, look, BC’s not that good after all, like we thought coming into the season!” crowd, though the Eagles did just stink up the joint last weekend against the formerly down-and-out River Rats.
Anyway, based on recent comments in the Collegian, it appears (at least according to Bronco) that the Minutemen miiiight have looked past the Terriers last time they played; this coupled with the disparity in rest (remember, 3 games in 5 days for UMass, first game in a month for BU) are a bad combination for a team that already relies heavily on speed rather than physicality. With the rest situation much more even, and Toot Cahoon surely reminding his boys on a daily basis of the final score of that last meeting, and with the Beanpot coming up this week, it would be shocking if the Terriers were to blow out the Minutemen again, especially given the way the Minutemen have played lately.
That power play (2 for its last 23 I believe) needs to get going, although I’m hoping for a much less whistle-happy game than the slopfest we saw at the beginning of the month. But as long as the defense continues to play as well as they’ve been doing of late, I’m confident that the Minutemen can bounce back from an offensive perspective. I’m looking for a 4-2 or 5-3 win, but it’ll probably be closer than that. A tie would be acceptable, barely, if the Minutemen can bounce back tomorrow night; I’ve accepted the fact that one is inevitable given that UMass is one of like 3 teams in the country that has yet to play to a draw.
Fear the Triangle’s Twitter just popped up that Langeraap and Coco are back in the lineup, but Kublin (who’s been playing very well on the blue line) and Hobbs are both out. Here’s hoping neither is a lasting injury, especially since we don’t know what to expect from Chase yet.
I’ll have reactions and a look at the Providence game (and tomorrow’s Charlotte basketball game) later on or in the morning, depending on my level of sobriety. Go UMass!
As reported by this site and relayed at Fear the Triangle, the David Boehm era at UMass has come to an abrupt end. We will miss Boehmer, not just for the awesome nicknames and catch phrases his name offers (not to mention the fact that he gave me a full box of Mona Vie juice while moving out last semester, having no room for it in his car), but for the tenacity he exhibited in his far-too-short time on the ice. We’re pretty sure we’ll remember him more for the game-winning goal against UNH than for the unfortunate injury and disciplinary problems that plagued his UMass career, and we wish him all the best in the USHL.
UMass hoops gets its first home game of the true semester tomorrow night against St. Bonaventure; I’ll use tomorrow as an opportunity to discuss the recent basketball action that got overlooked in light of the big hockey weekend.
Finally, a special welcome to the newest member of the blogging community: Mass Attack. More perspectives on the team can never be a bad thing, and besides, we’re glad to be off the hook as “newest bloggers on the block.”
Previews! And did we mention previews?
First, UMass hoops, fresh off of a nondescript six-point loss at “home” (actually, Springfield, much like Boston, looked from the highlights to be a greater home-court advantage for UMass than their own arena) to La Salle, takes on a very good Richmond team tonight. Tri Corner Blog has a very good overview of what to look for in the game tonight, which we would tell you to watch on ChannelSurfing if we weren’t so damn scrupulous. (Of course you can also hear it on the normal radio networks as called by Josh Maurer.) This is one of those games where there’s not much history between these two teams per se, but, as TCB’s Matt points out, the behavior of Richmond hicks fans at these two teams’ A-10 field hockey tournament game recently deserves to be avenged. Basically, these grown adults (which, by the standards of the south, leaves them with the intelligence and maturity of 12-year-old boys from civilized America) spent the game calling our players lesbians, one of them ordered pizza and said that the guy who took his order “sounded like a fag – but then again, aren’t they all up here?”, etc. Southern stereotypes are fun, especially when they all turn out to be accurate! But I’ll digress on the politics here…let’s just say it’d be real fun to get revenge on the court.
We don’t have much to say about the La Salle game because, well, neither of us really heard much of it between watching our beloved Patriots die a horrendous death at home and our preparations for the Northeastern roadtrip. But from what I did hear, it was a good game for Big City, TV and Freddie Riley, until foul trouble caught up to the guys at the end and nobody else could hit a big shot when they needed to.
So after two games, UMass is 1-1 in the A-10, the one winning being that squeaker against a god-awful team at home, followed by a second-half collapse against a mediocre team at “home.” I’ve said all along that the most important thing for UMass to do this season is to show improvement as the year goes on and maybe, just maybe make a splash in the conference tournament. They’ve got a long ways to go but my hopes of them coming strong out of the gate in A-10 play have been for naught so far. I may have more to say after the Richmond game, depending on how it goes.
Secondly, and (with all due respect to the ballers) a thousand times more importantly, we are now two days away from the massive clash between the University of Massachusetts and, uhh, that other state school, Eastern Mass. State College-Lowell or whatever they fancy themselves. Now, for those who have been reading from the beginning here, I’m sure you’re aware of, ahem, personal reasons why we here at Fight Mass would like nothing more than to defecate all over their parade this weekend. I’m personally looking forward to finally reading the “bulletin board material” during our pregame festivities Friday evening, although at this point it will be more for comedic purposes than anything else.
Selfish grudges aside, the River Rats and Minutemen enter this weekend in a deadlock for the 4th spot in Hockey East, and UMass’s lead over Lowell in the Pairwise and other predictive rankings, for what it’s worth at this fairly-early point in the year, is tenuous. UMass and Lowell come off a weekend where each team played at UNH and NU, with very different results: UMass got blasted by UNH while Lowell played them to a tie, while UMass dominated NU and Lowell ran out to an early lead before undisciplined play almost cost them an easy win which they eventually pulled out in OT.
The Minutemen come in at 12-8, while Lowell is 12-7-2. In the conference, the teams each have 12 points, but Lowell holds the tiebreaker (after that gut-wrenching first defeat in Coketown) and has one game in hand on us. In a conference where every single game can have a dramatic impact on the standings, these games, while they might not necessarily make or break the season, can go a long way in setting the tone for the home stretch of HEA play.
We mentioned it before, we’ll say it again: with the exception of that Hockey East Tournament sweep several years ago, Lowell has had our number for quite some time now, regardless of the way the season is going for either team. When they’re good, they outplay us; when they’re bad, we play down to their level. They come in remarkably even; Lowell getting off to a solid start before sputtering a bit, UMass getting off to a great start before sputtering a lot, but the overall bodies of work are quite similar. Going deeper into the numbers, the River Rats are badly underperforming their Pythagorean, as Lowell is +20 for the year (70-50), while UMass is overperforming at +6 (69-63). The problem with those numbers is that, unlike baseball (where Pythagorean can be somewhat indicative over such a long season), college hockey plays such a short season that the small sample size leads to easy skews. UMass’s two recent debacles against BU and UNH count as two losses, but they kill the Pythagorean at a combined -9.
Still, the supposed offensive edge UMass would have with its two superstar forwards is negated by Lowell’s edge defensively (led surprisingly not by last year’s standout Maury Edwards, but by Nick Schaus and Jeremy Dehner, an eye-popping +25 combined for the year) and offensive balance (10 double-digit scorers, compared to 6 for UMass who has two guys, Lecomte and Carzo, with 9). Add that to their well-publicized goalie tandem of seniors Hutton and Hamilton, compared to Pauly D’s one career win in 7 tries against Lowell (Meyers has yet to play them), and Lowell has the edge on paper.
But that’s the thing: the games don’t get played on paper. Despite all the expectations for Lowell and the lack thereof for UMass, these teams are in virtually the exact same position coming into this weekend, and both are coming off win-droughts with victories at Matthews, both big in their own unique ways. And so the Minutemen and their ugly sisters have a chance to make a statement: for UMass, the opportunity to flip both the “Cahoon swoon” script and the “can’t beat Lowell” script. For Lowell, the expectations, both from the preseason hype and their tradition of beating big brother, have to be tremendous. And while even a sweep by either team guarantees nothing in this season of unreal parity in the Hockey East Association, we’re gonna know a lot more about these two teams in a couple days.
…Unless, of course, they play to ties on both nights, and then we’re back at square one.
The first half of the 2009-2010 Hockey East season felt like the “morning-after” scene of 2009 smash comedy “The Hangover,” which my buddy Walsh and I watched last night while drowning our sorrows after UMass’s embarassing 7-3 loss to Boston University. After the drunken debauchery of the year before, all of a sudden the Terriers awoke to find their buddies (Yip, Wilson, Gilroy, et al) missing completely or, in the cases of underperformers like Millan, Bonino, and Trivino, missing teeth. In addition, they found all sorts of things they weren’t expecting to find, like UMass, Maine, and Lowell fighting for home ice, Merrimack ahead of them in the standings, and a tiger in the bathroom.
Well, in my admittedly-disjointed metaphor, yesterday’s game was a lot like the scene where Stu realizes where their buddy Doug is (no spoilers for those who haven’t seen it). All of a sudden, the offense was clicking, the motivation and determination were back, and even Millan almost looked (at times) somewhat as good as everyone seemed to think he was last year.
UMass, meanwhile, looked like the ones who needed electrolytes, bed rest, and Advil. Every single aspect of the game of hockey looked off by just a beat. Every break they caught (thanks to 13 BU penalties, some more deserved than others) was followed by an offensive faceoff loss or a neutralizing penalty of their own. Passes were juuust off. Defensemen juuust missed keeping pucks in at the blue line. Little mistakes add up when you’re making them all game long. Barry Melrose was there calling the action for ESPNU (whom I barely missed out on meeting in the media room) and apparently referred to the Minutemen’s effort as “A full 60 minutes of ineptitude.” It’s hard to argue.
What now for UMass? 2 wins in 7 games is troublesome. 2 straight multiple-goal losses to teams in the lower half of the PWR rankings is even worse. The echoes of second-half “Cahoon swoons” are deafening at this point. Why shouldn’t we be hitting the panic button just yet?
Well, 2-5 in seven games looks bad, but UMass was in the game in the first three-game losing streak, and dominated the play for a vast majority of the Bentley game. It’s not like the Minutemen are getting vastly outplayed on a nightly basis like they did in this game. And there’s no stretch of 3 games in 6 days left on the schedule, let alone such a game against a team with 3 weeks to rest their legs.
UMass remains 4th in Hockey East with a ton of games left to go. Admittedly, BU was expected to be one of the easiest remaining opponents. But that’s why you play the games. And it’s not just UMass finding that out this weekend in Hockey East. BC got swept by lowly St. Lawrence, although they followed it up by nearly knocking off Denver. Northeastern, a team that has fallen from the top along with BU this year, topped Lowell in the Ledyard Bank Classic, sending the River Hawks to its fifth loss in their last eight. Maine may have stunned Colorado College, but not before a nailbiter against Princeton that goes into the books as a tie.
Don’t get me wrong. We here at Fight Mass are worried. We’ve seen this one before, and we know how it ends. But defeatist attitudes are no fun, and after seeing how well this team can play, we know they’re capable of getting back on track. With trips to HEA-leading UNH and suddenly-resurgent Northeastern on tap for next weekend, followed by that massive two-gamer against the little sister, it’s time for these guys to nut up or shut up. (Hey, what can I say, 2009 was a damn good year for comedies.)
Meanwhile, men’s basketball gets set to take on Fordham in the A-10 opener on Wednesday (another chance to hear yours truly on student radio!). I’ll have a more in-depth look at that later this week.
Alright, time to get rolling with the actual meat of the content.
UMass Basketball vs. Memphis – tomorrow, 6 PM, TD Garden
I know it’s odd considering this is supposed to be a hockey blog, but tomorrow night, men’s basketball will be playing its highly-anticipated game in the TD Garden against John Calipari’s the Memphis Tigers. JTAM has the usual variety of local media links. Honestly, at this point, I’m more excited about the throwback uniforms, the national coverage, the venue, and the pre-game meetup at the Fours than I am about our chances of actually winning the game. Not to sound negative, but let’s face it, UMass is 4-5 on the season (the Fort Smith game doesn’t count toward RPI and, being a non-conference game, is therefore irrelevant), they’ve lost at home to Cornell, they’ve been smoked by mediocre Big East teams…UMass is not getting an at-large bid this year, period. The only way they make the NCAA tournament is if the team suddenly gels in A-10 play and they make a Cinderella run through Atlantic City, in a complete bizarro world take on how the T-Fraud era played out. So this Memphis game really doesn’t mean a whole lot in terms of playoff implications.
But, let’s look at the positives. I actually think UMass can win this game. Memphis is 7-1, yes, but aside from Kansas (who beat them in a 2-point nailbiter), the Tigers haven’t exactly played, uhh, anyone. Jackson State, Tennessee Tech, Central Arkansas, Oakland, Arkansas State, Montana State, and Arkansas-Little Rock, with only that last one being away from FedEx Forum. Granted, Memphis is winning those games by a LOT, but there’s a reason that 7-1 record leaves them (barely) out of the top 25.
It is kind of sad that Calipari won’t be there; I think the whole point of having the game in Boston and not Amherst was that Coach Cal would bring a much larger crowd than the Mullins could hold, but this is still a great opportunity for the Minutemen, who really have nothing to lose in this game, to get the first “big win” for the freshman class. I look forward to seeing a lot of the usual Mullins maniacs one more time before break; I envision an atmosphere a lot like the NIT a few years ago, but with less students and more alumni. (In other words, a quieter, but perhaps more knowledgeable, contingent.)
UMass Hockey: Midseason Report
In the coming days, I’ll recap the schedule and look at the context of each game, and maybe a more in-depth look at the players, but for now, let’s take a look at where the Minutemen sit at the holiday break.
UMass is the #15-ranked team in both polls, after starting the season unranked and climbing as high as #9. They’re 4th in Hockey East, one point ahead of Lowell, 3 back of Maine, 4 back of BC and 6 back of UNH, but they’ve played two fewer games than the teams ahead of them. If the season were to end today, UMass would host Lowell in the Hockey East quarterfinals; if the NCAA was selecting teams today, UMass would probably make the field of 16.
…but, of course, that’s not how it works, and anyone who’s followed the team in recent years knows about the second-half crash and burn the team has experienced, especially the past two seasons. Two years ago, the collapse began after UMass swept through the Lightning tournament in Tampa Bay and shot up to 5th in the rankings, winning two games in the following two months. Last season, the only teams we seemed to be able to beat in the second half were Maine and Northeastern, and we all know how the latter exacted revenge in the playoffs.
I’m cautiously optimistic about the way this team could perform in the second half. One reason for that is the remaining schedule. After what has to be the easiest holiday tournament I’ve seen UMass play in my four years here, the schedule has them playing a road-heavy second half, with only 6 more games at the Mullins Center. However, their away schedule is full of games against teams they should beat, while their more challenging foes are the ones who will have to brave the Bill. On paper, UMass still has 3 games left against a struggling Northeastern team (2 away, 1 home) and 2 visits to Agganis to play that mess of a Terriers squad. They already won their only trip to Gutterson and will get Vermont here for a pair, and BC and Lowell still have to come here again.
There are things on that schedule that scare me, though. After UConn, they have a HUGE three-game road swing, taking on the two bottom-dwelling Boston doggies, but with a visit to UNH in the middle. If we can win two of those three, I’ll be pretty confident that this team can avoid the second-half swoon, that all this talk of better leadership and team cohesiveness and other coaching jibber-jabber is for real. As bad as BU and NU are this year, though, they’re still Hockey East teams, with an incredibly tough Whittemore trip in the middle…a recipe for a season-crippling trip. They follow that up with a home-and-home with the ugly sister, a consistently mediocre squad in the past few years that just seems to have our number, regardless of how the teams perform against anyone else. This year’s been no different; even though UMass has basically the same record as Lowell and has played a tougher schedule, the River Hawks snapped a 3-game skid with a convincing comeback win against us at Tsongas. The fact that they followed that up by barely splitting a weekend series against an awful Princeton squad says that, even if UML continues their tailspin into the second half, our two-game series could get them back on track in a heartbeat. Their #3 ranking may be a distant memory, but their 10-3-2 record in the last 15 against us is disturbingly real. On top of everything else, the two games are going to be at the tail end of break, and since traditional dorms don’t open until Sunday, the student section for Friday is going to be limited to commuters and us nine-month housing students (yay North Apartments!). Lowell fans travel well, and I have no idea when their semester starts, so I fear they’ll be very audible at the game – not that these things matter, of course. It’s the principle of the thing that bugs me.
UMass has a couple trap games left on the schedule, too. A visit to Providence looks inviting, but we all know how easily Alex Beaudry can steal a game for the Friars – he might as well have been wearing his Martin Brodeur costume on Halloween. And as thoroughly as we put to bed all the talk about Merrimack’s improvement the other night (4-1 doesn’t even begin to describe how much UMass dominated that game, but more on that in the game-by-game recap next week), Lawler Arena is to the Minutemen what Safeco Field is to the Red Sox – a place where we never, ever seem to win, no matter how awful the home team is. At least we only have to go there once.
Finally, those last two games against Maine loom pretty large. Considering how much better the Black Bears have played since the bloodbath in Amherst, it’s not hard to envision those last two games being absolutely crucial when it comes to Hockey East standings, reminiscent of the famous “Wilson games” at the end of the 06-07 season. UMass rode those four huge points to home ice, and the rest is history. Unfortunately, Dave Wilson ain’t walking through that door, and hopefully the Minutemen aren’t in a position where the season is riding on two games in Orono…
The overall performance of the team so far is promising. UMass’s power play has really been a pleasant surprise, a massive improvement over last year, and no longer is the “see ya, asshole!” followed by a collective groan when we realize that we were better off with 5-on-5 play. Really, I could go on about James Marcou, but there’s not much to say about him and Wellman that hasn’t already been said. It’s simply been a joy to watch him this season and, if he can start putting home a few goals to go with all the assists, that Hobey Baker award is a very real possibility. Overshadowed in all of this has been the stellar play of guys like Syner and Ortiz, the latter most definitely being the comeback player of the year for this team. He’s like the Tony Gaffney of this team; a guy who puts 110% into every play as well as someone who shocked everyone by putting it all together his senior season. On the other end of the spectrum, Chase Langeraap’s had a rough year, which is tough to say as someone who’s gotten to chat with him a bit off the ice – he’s a really nice guy and a class act. I’m hopeful that his performance is being affected by the nagging injuries from last year and that a few weeks of rest is what he needs to get back on track. Likewise, I hope that Lecomte and Carzo come back fresher after the break; they both had great starts to the season but haven’t been the same since coming back from injuries.
The defense has been a mixed bag…Nolet has been solid as always, Mikey Marcou and Kublin have stepped up nicely, and Donnellan’s shown some promise, but at the same time, Braun and Irwin have both been up-and-down at times. Thankfully Dainton finally looks like a top-notch goaltender; he’s giving us way fewer heart attacks playing the puck behind the net and has had some outright spectacular games. Meyers needs to start showing us something, though, because we can’t just ride Paulie the whole way; even if Mr. Movie Blog is a clear #2 at this point, we’re gonna need to start playing him more with all the two-game Hockey East weekends ahead.
I feel pretty good about this team going forward. 10-5-0 with one of the nation’s stronger schedules so far is nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s comforting to know that the boys have yet to be blown out in a game (three two-goal losses which were all one-goal games until late in the third period; one game that Alex Beaudry stole from us, and the Q game, which was heartbreaking, but in which we did manage to erase a 3-0 deficit). This team, unlike the last few years, can rely on its offense and power play to get back into games, and I just can’t foresee a team with two of the nation’s best scorers struggling. That said, Hockey East is absolutely insane this year, and almost every team in the conference could realistically win the tourney, so it’s gonna be a thrill to see what the second half holds for the boys.
In a few days (probably Sunday but we’ll see) I’ll get started on the game-by-game season recap; I’m also going to work on a banner as soon as I can get Photoshop back on my computer. And again, lemme know if you want to contribute to the blog, or hit me up on Facebook.