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Weekend series with Merrimack decides if UMass hockey goes to postseason

AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts hockey team’s quest to make the Hockey East tournament has come down to one weekend.

For UMass to reach the postseason, it will need to earn some points in its home-and-home series with Merrimack and get some favorable results in other games. The teams play today in North Andover at 7:30 p.m., and at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Mullins Center.

The Minutemen (11-18-3, 8-15-2) are in ninth place with 18 points, one back of Maine (10-17-7, 6-12-7) and three behind Vermont (11-16-5, 8-12-5). Only eight teams make the playoffs.

Maine plays New Hampshire twice in Durham, N.H., and Vermont hosts Boston College for two games.

The good news for UMass is that it holds the tiebreaker should it finish tied with either the Black Bears or Catamounts. The bad news is that Merrimack has plenty to play for this weekend as well. The Warriors (14-14-6, 12-10-3, 27 points) are in sixth place but are just three points out of third. The top four teams earn home ice in the best-of-three quarterfinal series.

The Minutemen were eager to put the anticipation of the weekend behind them and take the ice.

“Waiting is the worst part, for me especially. Let’s tee it up. Guys are anxious to play,” UMass coach John Micheletto said Tuesday. “But we have a little bit of work to do and need to take advantage of some rest to make sure we’re ready to go.”

Senior co-captain Rocco Carzo agreed.

“I want to get going. I want to play. The destiny is in our hands now. We want to play now,” said Carzo, who like most of his teammates was trying to keep distractions to a minimum.

“There’s a lot going on with senior night and playoff (implications). We just have to worry about the game like it’s a normal game for us. We just have to play our game,” Carzo said. “For me personally, I just have to push everything aside and play hockey.”

Part of doing that is maintaining the same routine he’s used for the first five months of the season.

“I’ll go through the same stuff during the week. I’ll eat the same meal Thursday (chicken penne with vodka sauce from Pasta E Basta). Then I’ll go home and do my laundry and get a movie from Redbox,” Carzo said. “I normally get a scary movie, but I’ll go with anything.”

Micheletto isn’t as superstitious, but he likes the idea of sticking to the same patterns.

“It takes some of the extra thought out of things. That’s why routine is comfortable,” he said. “It allows you to focus on the essential things you have to focus in on.”

Fellow co-captain Kevin Czepiel said avoiding being too hyped is important too.

“We can’t try to do too much. You can’t try to win the game in the first two minutes. It’s going to be a full 60 minutes,” he said. “Merrimack is a good team, especially in their rink.”

Czepiel, Carzo, Darren Rowe and Eddie Olczyk Jr. will all be honored after Saturday’s game as part of senior night.

For the guys coming back, Micheletto hoped that playing in these high-stakes games would have lasting value.

“Pressure situations are always good to have guys become battle-tested. We certainly would have liked to be in a different situation coming into this weekend,” he said. “But one of the benefits of the way the playoff structure is right now, is that everybody is playing for something, whether it’s a league title or home ice, to get into the playoffs or not get into the playoffs.”

The final weekend can create some odd coaching decisions. For example, if UMass was tied with Merrimack in overtime Saturday night, but trailed Maine by two points in the standings, the Minutemen could choose to pull their goalie to play for the win.

UMass director of hockey operations John Gobeil will be monitoring the other Hockey East games. He’ll communicate with assistant coach Joey Gasparini on the bench using a radio headset.

“You have to know all of your scenarios going into both nights,” Micheletto said. “You have to have all that information at the ready in the course of the game to know what you’re going to do. That’s why in the last weekend, you’ll see things that are unusual. Guys pulling the goaltender needing a win. We hope that we’re in a position where we’re comfortably winning both nights so our work can speak for itself. In case that doesn’t happen, we’ll make sure we’re getting information where we need it.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at @GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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