Tagged: I <3 the freshmen!

He loves the Golden Gophers but hated all the drawn-out winters…

“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.

– Max