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Eighth-place UMass faces critical stretch in Hockey East

AMHERST — Going into the season, Joel Hanley didn’t expect the University of Massachusetts to be fighting in March just to make the Hockey East tournament.

But with four games left over the next two weekends, Hanley said the Minutemen are ready for the battle, beginning with tonight’s 7:30 game at New Hampshire. The teams meet again Saturday at 7.

“I know a lot of the guys didn’t think we’d be in this spot. It’s reality and we are here,” Hanley said. “We have to do our best to make the playoffs and go from there.”

The difference between being one of the eight teams that make the field and the two that don’t is significant.

“It’s huge,” Hanley said. “For the program and for everyone of us, it’s our goal to make the playoffs and go to the (semifinals at the TD) Garden. We think we’re one of the teams that should make it and we’re trying to do our best to make it.”

UMass coach John Micheletto said Saturday’s 5-2 win over Maine was a good jumping-off point for his players.

“I think they’ve done a nice job trying to work through the various adversities that a season will throw at you,” he said. “The comeback we had on Saturday was a nice step. I think it puts us in a good position with four remaining regular season games to try to get a little momentum built here.”

UMass (11-17-2, 8-14-1 Hockey East, 17 points) is clinging to eighth place in Hockey East, just ahead of Maine (9-17-6, 5-12-6, 16 points). Northeastern (9-18-3, 5-15-3) is lurking in 10th with 13 points. The highest UMass could finish is seventh.

For UMass to hold on to eighth, it will need to earn points in tough spots as the Minutemen have four games remaining against teams vying for the league’s regular season title. UNH (17-8-5, 12-7-4) is tied for first with Boston College, UMass Lowell and Providence. UMass plays a home-and-home series with second-place Merrimack (14-12-6, 12-8-3) next weekend.

Maine has the benefit of hosting Northeastern for two games this weekend before closing with two games at New Hampshire. Vermont (10-15-5, 7-11-5, 19 points) is at sixth-place Boston University for two games this weekend and hosts Boston College for two next weekend.

The good news for UMass heading into its games against fifth-ranked New Hampshire is that the Minutemen have three wins this season against top-10 teams, including a 2-1 victory over then-No. 9 UNH on Nov. 2.

“Maybe we do rise to the occasion. We know we have a big test ahead of us,” Hanley said. “I think that’s a good thing. Coming down to the last part here we have UNH and Merrimack. They’re both good teams. Hopefully we can rise to the occasion and get some crucial points here.”

Micheletto thought it was more about matchups than playing better against stronger teams.

“There are teams we match up better against. We need to make sure we’re maximizing our strengths no matter who we’re playing against. Sometimes when the game gets a little more wide open and becomes about making plays, we’ve fared better in those games,” he said. “Grinding it out is something we’ve been trying to learn. UNH, when they were here, we certainly had a good game against them. I would expect this to be a good matchup again.”

New Hampshire has sputtered of late going 1-2-3 in its last six games, but the Wildcats have been good at home, where they are 9-3-1.

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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