As the 2021-22 NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey season reaches its halfway point, the defending National Champion University of Massachusetts Minutemen are currently ranked #12 overall and sit atop the Hockey East standings with 24 points. Through the first 11 games of the Hockey East schedule, the Minutemen are 7-2-2 (9-4-2 overall), both HEA losses have come in overtime. UMass last lost a game in regulation during their season-opening home series against fellow Frozen Four participant Minnesota State-Mankato when they dropped both games, 2-0 and 6-3, respectively.
Not that UMass’ success will be measured in half-seasons, but thus far, from the outside, it would appear to be on track for a successful season. Especially when considering the Minutemen are trying to become back-to-back champs. Turnover for the school from last year would be detrimental to many schools, but the Minutemen re-loaded and went about their business.
Factoring in that Massachusetts has seven freshmen, two graduate transfer students, and one transfer student trying to incorporate themselves into NCAA hockey or a new program after three or four years with another school. Now sprinkle in injuries, and the Minutemen have been dealing with a fair share to key players, and, amazingly, the team is as well-positioned as it is.
Hockey East, as always, will be a dog fight for the top spot. There are six, maybe seven, contenders for winning the regular-season conference title this season. All bets are off this year for the post-season championship, with the league adopting a new format. Single-game elimination from start to finish.
The Minutemen have a few games in hand on some of the teams chasing them at the moment, but only one team in the conference can catch them before January when the season kicks into high gear for the stretch run. The UMass-Lowell River Hawks have two games this weekend in Burlington, Vermont, against the University of Vermont Catamounts and trail their sister school by five points.
“It’s kind of scary how many games we scored late when we needed to, five or six, maybe a four or five,” said Head Coach Greg Carvel on Wednesday following a come from behind OT win against Merrimack College. “It’s a lot. But over the last couple of years, we’ve become accustomed to being dominant in shots and in scoring chances; it’s not the case this year. We’re getting outshot and out-chanced in most games but finding ways not to lose. It almost feels like we’re playing, finding ways not to lose as opposed to playing to win.”
“As of right now, we’re in first place, and I’m sour about it,” said Carvel. “I don’t know what that says about me, but, seriously, I don’t want to sound arrogant, but we’re squeaking by. We’re scratching and clawing, and it’s working. But for a couple of years, it didn’t feel like that.”
“It felt like we came into places, not necessarily here (Lawler Rink), but we outshot, out-chanced teams pretty considerably, and we’re just not doing that this year. So that’s why it probably doesn’t feel as good as it should,” added the sixth-year bench boss.
Carvel knows the Minutemen now have the target on their back and must factor into Massachusetts not having that same ability to roll teams.
“It does, for sure. We get a lot of good games from our opponents. So maybe that’s a good part of the reason, but even so, I know what our standard of play should be,” said Carvel. “I don’t know if you thought we played very well tonight? I didn’t think it was great. For two periods, it wasn’t very good; the third period was good. If we can play to our standard, we can win in regulation, that’s big in this league. Three points is big. To get three points is huge, and we have too many overtime games.”
“But at the same time, I’m proud of the kids,” said Carvel. “They haven’t lost in regulation in two to three months, so I can’t be too harsh on them.”
On Wednesday, Coach Carvel went into the game against Merrimack, hoping to improve the penalty kill after giving up four power-play goals against the River Hawks this past weekend. Coach also wanted to come away with the regulation victory. They didn’t give up a power-play goal to the Warriors on four penalties. They didn’t win in regulation, but they did salvage points by tying the game at 2-2 late in the third period on a Lucas Mercuri goal, then winning with thirty-eight seconds remaining in overtime on a goal by senior Captain Bobby Trivigno.
As Carvel said, the Minutemen didn’t play well in the first two periods. The Warriors were all over the visitors, getting to loose pucks, pinning the UMass defense in its zone, and had solid goaltending from sophomore Zachary Borgiel (24 saves in the OT loss). Merrimack is notoriously hard to play against at home. In the two previous meetings between the schools in late October, the Minutemen prevailed 2-1 in North Andover and 5-4 in Amherst but in overtime. Carvel accurately predicted a one-goal game in this one as well.
“I’m happy to come away with two points, that puts us in first place in Hockey East,” said Carvel of the OT win over Merrimack. “I feel like we’ve been playing just average hockey. I’m looking forward to the second half. Hopefully, we can elevate and start playing better and winning games by not going to overtime.”
Carvel was asked if the break comes at a reasonable or wrong time for the team?
“Well, Josh Lopina looked damn good this morning (Wednesday), and now I don’t get to see him play again for three more weeks. I think he’s a big factor for us. So I don’t know.”
The sophomore first-line center has missed the last ten games to injury. Lopina had five points in the team’s first five games.
“I think some time off usually does us pretty well,” added Carvel. “We push the kids hard and the breaks usually, we come back better after the breaks, so I’m going to go with that answer.”
UMass next plays two against the Union College Dutchmen on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in Schenectady, NY. They then travel to Ann Arbor, MI, to face the Michigan Wolverines for the first time in school history. Hockey East play resumes on January 21 at Northeastern University.