Oh, Craig Finn, is there anything you haven’t already written a great lyric for?
UMass hockey fought valiantly this past weekend against BU, but fell exasperatingly short once again against the Warsofsky-less Terriers in front of a large, but (once again) fairly disinterested crowd. I’ll weigh in eventually (pinky swear!) with that long-promised overview of where I feel the student section is going – the wrong direction, by the way – and the factors that have led to the discontent of the Fight Mass writing staff and my fellow alumni who were present for better days. In the meantime, let’s see where UMass stands as the final three weeks of the regular season approach.
At this point, I think we can divide the rest of the conference into subgroups: the contenders (BC, UNH, and – gasp – Merrimack), the pretenders? (BU and Maine), the plucky upstarts (Northeastern), the scrappers-to-make-the-playoffs (us, Providence, and Vermont), and Lowell (Lowell). The skeptical question mark for the pretenders is where the biggest grey area is for me. There’s no question that the top 3 teams have differentiated themselves as the class of Hockey East. You could argue that BU or Maine can still play their way back into that discussion, but with Maine falling ever-closer to the middle of the pack hurts their legitimacy, and I don’t trust either of their goalies anyway. BU barely squeaking by us doesn’t change the fact that they just finished fourth in their own four-team tournament, one that their home PA announcer is the PA announcer of. I’ve seen Merrimack in person and watched BC and UNH on TV several times. BU is just not as good as those teams, regardless of the fact that they’re only 2 points behind the Warriors. Northeastern, meanwhile, damn near won the Beanpot, are looking better by the week – and, of course, have 4 games left against BC and UNH while BU gets to feast on UVM and Providence. With 6 points to overcome, it’s gonna take recent trends for the two Boston dog teams to escalate if those last two games between them are going to matter. Still, you have to admire Cronin’s team and how far they’ve come, even if they do rely waaaay too heavily on that McNeely-MacCloud tandem and Rawlings occasionally standing on his head. And they have a guy named Dongara. Hehe.
So then you’ve got the bottom of the standings, with a rebuilding team (us), a hard-to-figure-out and probably underachieving Vermont team, and, well, Providence, who does nothing particularly well but isn’t awful enough to mitigate the fact that on any given night, their goaltender can steal a game. (See: last Saturday or 50% of the fucking games Beaudry has against us.) Lowell, of course, is historically, hysterically bad, but our lead over the rest of Hockey East is tenuous at best. There’s two playoff spots left for these three teams, and someone’s gonna get left out in the cold. Here’s where they stand:
7. UMass – 15 points
Remaining: 2 vs. Merrimack (H/A), 2 vs. BC (H/A), 2 vs. Maine (H/H)
8. Vermont – 14 points
Remaining: 2 vs. UNH (H/H), 2 vs. BU (A/A), 2 vs. Lowell (H/H)
9. Providence – 12 points
Remaining: 2 vs. BU (H/A), 2 vs. Lowell (H/A)), 2 vs. Merrimack (H/A)
For tiebreakers, UMass holds the breaker on Vermont, Vermont holds the breaker on PC, and PC holds the breaker on UMass. Think of it as the worst game of rock-paper-scissors ever. Or for the nostalgic nerds out there, think of UMass as fire, Vermont as grass, and PC as water. And Lowell as Magikarp. Except nobody’s super-effective.
So obviously, the Minutemen have the toughest task ahead. If UVM and PC both sweep Lowell, as one can reasonably expect, that would put each of them ahead of UMass if the Minutemen fail to gain a point for the rest of the year. And that’s even if they lose the other four games apiece (which is also quite reasonable). UMass has definitely played better at home of late – relatively speaking – and I give them a fighting chance to pull off an upset over a Da Costa-less Merrimack team or a coasting BC team. But as usual, those last two games of the season against Maine are probably going to decide our fate. Last year’s team went up to Alfond against a pretty similar Maine team and stole two wins. This year, they’re at home, and Maine is in a bit of a nosedive since an impressive win over BC on January 16th. They’ve since been swept by UNH, earned just 1 point against BU in two games at home, tied Northeastern, and got walloped by Vermont at home before edging by the other night. Maine has two with Lowell that will likely get them back on track, but they follow that with two against Merrimack. One would expect Maine won’t have nearly as much to play for in that final weekend, if BU beats up on the rest of their schedule and locks down the final home ice slot.
Here’s hoping UMass can pounce on the Black Bears like they have in years past in that last weekend. Otherwise, our playoff hopes might mean – wait for it – rooting for Lowell. Eww.
Note: I’ve got plenty to say about the basketball team’s recent slide as well, but I’ll wait on that, maybe until after the Rhody game. I can only hope that things will be much more fun to talk about by then.
“Frisky” would be the word I would best use to describe our beloved UMass Minutemen hockey team after the first two games of the season.
Yes, it’s true that the Minutemen surrendered a natural hat trick in the second game, and failed to capitalize on a five-minute major early in the first game. Yeah, Pauly D’s injury (and the prospect of a clearly unready Jeff Teglia in net for an extended period of time) has us sweating just a bit. And yes, it’s true that the quote-unquote “experts” on the cold intellectual abyss known as the USCHO forums are talking a hell of a lot more about how poorly Minnesota played than about how well UMass played.
Well if that’s how the respect gets doled out in the online college hockey discussion, then UMass has to feel positively Dangerfieldian at this point. These were two gutsy, gutsy hockey games played in an intimidating arena, although thanks to the Twinkies’ poor excuse for a playoff run (and sorry, Craig Finn, but after that, I’m gonna call them Twinkies), Mariucci Arena wasn’t its usual sold-out self. Just the same, this is the #15 team in the country we’re talking about, loaded with NHL talent and confidence, and UMass could have easily taken both games. Pauly D stood on his head at times in the first game (if Hennessey’s call is to be believed – I didn’t have the video feed), true, but both Minnesota goalkeepers had spectacular moments of their own.
Let’s face it, the success of this team is going to be measured against expectations. Two narrow losses to Minnesota last year would be seen as a heartbreaking opportunity lost to enhance UMass’s possible tournament resume, a la the Quinnipiac game. This year? Nobody is crazy enough to expect a team this young and inexperienced to push for an at-large bid (are you? You’re crazy), so these non-conference games are really being played with house money. Any real chance these guys have for surprising, meaningful success lies in their ability to improve and gel throughout the season, to where they’re that hot team nobody wants to see in the Hockey East tourney. BC, Maine, and UNH are just too talented this year for “sneaking into the last home ice slot” not to be UMass’s ceiling. That would make for a very intriguing March, and given the way this team played this weekend, even with all the injuries and first-game jitters, I actually believe it can be done.
Realistically, though? I’ll be happy to watch this team play, win or lose, if they play with the level of intensity and heart that they brought to Minnesota. Teams like that stick around in games right down to the wire, even if they lack the experience to put them away. More importantly, teams like that are fun to watch. I, for once, am looking forward to seeing guys like Power and Gracel and Raiola and Pereira and Shea play after this weekend. They might lose some games, sure, but if these first two games are any indication, this isn’t the horrible team everyone expected to see with all the defections. This is a legitimate rebuilding project that now appears poised for serious progress. We’ll see how long our optimism lasts.
It is what it is: a rebuilding year. Temper your expectations and cherish the opportunity to see a team with loads of young talent gel before your eyes.
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.