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UMass enters final stretch of Hockey East schedule

The tournaments, the nonconference games and the exhibitions are over.

For the next five weeks, beginning Friday and going until the end of the regular season, the University of Massachusetts will play nine games, all against conference foes, to determine its position in March’s Hockey East tournament.

It starts with this weekend’s home-and-home series with Merrimack — Friday at the Mullins Center, Saturday at Lawler Arena in North Andover. Both games are at 7 p.m.

“We’ve been stressing every time out, no matter who we play, at home or on the road, every league game matters,” UMass coach John Micheletto said. “We’ve tried to create that sense of urgency without creating a sense of panic. The difference is there’s nothing but league games mixed in the rest of the way. There’s a sprint to the finish line mentality, but I don’t know that we’re looking at it as any more important or less important than we have with games in the past.”

UMass (6-15-3, 2-7-2) is in ninth place with six points, while Merrimack (6-12-3, 1-6-2) is last with four points. Boston University (7-13-2, 2-7-1) is in between with five points.

This weekend won’t have quite as much on the line as last year’s series with the Warriors. Merrimack eliminated UMass from Hockey East playoff contention in their season-ending series. Nobody gets eliminated this year as all 13 teams will make the conference tournament. The top five teams get byes, with teams 6-11 squaring off in the first round.

Before the Minutemen can think about postseason positioning, they’ll try to end a victory drought that extends over a month. UMass is 0-4-1 since beating Colgate on Dec. 15.

The latest loss came Jan. 14 against American International when UMass outshot the Yellow Jackets, 59-18, but fell 3-2.

“We did a lot of good things in our last outing, but we didn’t get the result and that ends up putting a bad taste in your mouth,” Micheletto said. “I’d like for us to come out with the same effort and execution for 60 minutes and have a better conversion rate and get a better result and come out feeling really good about ourselves.”

Merrimack is 2-3 over its last five games, with wins over Boston College and Quinnipiac, who are ranked No. 2 and 4, respectively. The Warriors are last in Hockey East in scoring at 1.95 goals per game, just behind UMass, which is 12th with 2.04 per game.

Senior forward Mike Collins leads Merrimack with 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists). Collins enters the weekend on a six-game point streak, with five goals and two assists over that stretch. Sophomore Brian Christie is next with 11 points (four goals, seven assists).

Junior goalie Rasmus Tirronen has been coach Mark Dennehy’s top netminder. He’s 5-6-3 with 2.16 goals against average and a 92.0 save percentage.

The game will be the first for UMass since the start of the spring semester. Micheletto was glad to have his players in a more regular routine.

“When you don’t have structure, it’s harder to get out and be active,” Micheletto said. “I think when you have less time on your hands, you’re more effective and productive.”

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

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