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UMass hockey opens Friday with UConn

John Micheletto fields questions after being named the new University of Massachusetts ice hockey head coach Monday during a press conference at the Mullins Center.

JERREY ROBERTS John Micheletto fields questions after being named the new University of Massachusetts ice hockey head coach Monday during a press conference at the Mullins Center. Purchase photo reprints »

AMHERST — Somewhere down the line a hockey game between the Universities of Massachusetts and Connecticut will likely have added significance.

The geographic proximity and athletic history between the two schools, combined with UConn’s move to Hockey East, means a future rivalry is likely.

“I think there’s no question as they move forward and join Hockey East in two years that it’s going to develop into an even bigger rivalry hockey-wise than it has been in the past,” said UMass coach John Micheletto, who’ll make his head coaching debut tonight. “I’m certainly learning from the greater UMass community and Amherst at large that UMass-UConn is already a pretty heated rivalry. We’re looking forward to not only getting on the ice but competing in what’s going to be a pretty heated rivalry moving forward.”

When the Minutemen and Huskies meet in the Mullins Center at 7 p.m., the excitement for the UMass players will not be from playing UConn, but simply from playing anyone.

“I’ve never played UConn. I don’t really know anything about them. Not yet,” junior Conor Allen said. “As long as we’re playing someone other than ourselves.”

Junior center Michael Pereira agreed.

“It’s big enough that it’s our opener and we want to get the win in front of the home crowd,” Pereira said. “It’s been a long time coming. A lot of the guys are giddy and a lot of the coaches are giddy too. It’s definitely fun.”

Micheletto is not adding any personal significance to the opener.

“I look at it like I’m eager for these guys to have success. These guys have endeared themselves to me in a very short period of time,” he said. “You get into coaching, not for you, but providing other guys with opportunities.”

The Huskies are coming off a season where they finished 16-19-4 overall and 12-12-3 in Atlantic Hockey. While leading scorer Cole Schneider graduated, UConn’s next two scorers — Brant Harris (18 goals, 15 assists) and Billy Latta (10 goals, 18 assists) — are back. Senior goalie Garrett Bartus, who played almost every minute last year for UConn with a 2.55 goals against average and a 9.23 save percentage, also returns.

The game could mark the debut of four UMass freshmen —forwards Shane Walsh, Evan Stack and K.J. Tiefenwerth and defenseman Connor Doherty — if they’re among the 18 skaters dressed for the game.

“All those guys are going to be in the mix and push our returning guys for playing time,” Micheletto said. “K.J. was a big points guy in his junior career. He’s proven to have some offensive gifts. Shane’s game has gotten a lot better. He’s had more impact in practice in the last three or four ice sessions. Connor has good mobility on the back end and he’s certainly a competitive kid. Evan is a real jack of all trades kind of guy. He’s proving that already. He can play the middle, play the wall. He’s pretty conscientious both ways and has a nice little shot.”

Micheletto said choosing who’ll dress is going to be a challenge every night.

“We have 17 eligible forwards and nine defensemen, which is a bigger than usual roster in the league,” he said. “It’s going to be really competitive. We’re going to have some hard decisions.”

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

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