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UMass ices Michigan State in Hockey East-Big Ten Challenge

For the University of Massachusetts hockey team, offensive production starts from the top.

UMass’ first line of Michael Pereira, Branden Gracel and Conor Sheary combined for 16 shots and contributed two goals in Friday’s 3-1 victory over Michigan State in front of a raucous crowd of 7,078 in the Hockey East-Big Ten Challenge at the Mullins Center.

“That’s the game that coach wants us to play,” Gracel said. “When we play at that fast-paced game, other teams can’t keep up with us and it showed tonight.”

Gracel initiated the scoring, finding the back of the net 3 minutes, 26 seconds into the second period on the power play. Senior defenseman Joel Hanley pushed a pass into traffic on the right side of the net where Gracel was waiting on the forehand.

“We had a similar power play in the first period and he actually took the shot and I told him, ‘I’m wide open backdoor. Don’t even look just throw it there and I’ll be there,’” Gracel said.

The goal punctuated a slowly building wave of offensive momentum. UMass was the aggressor early in the game, maintained a quick pace of play and jumped on opportunities in the second period.

“We had a great mindset,” UMass coach John Micheletto said. “Our guys have a lot of buy-in, obviously we’re in great physical condition in order to be able to play that style.”

The Minutemen (1-2) took advantage of a Spartans mistake 15:50 into the second. Sophomore winger Shane Walsh punched in a loose puck after Spartans goaltender Jake Hildebrand failed to squeeze a glove save on a shot from the blue line by freshman winger Brandon Wahlin, who registered his first career point on the play.

“Speed kills for” Wahlin, Micheletto said. “We want all of our guys to play fast but obviously Brandon already possesses great speed.”

Michigan State cut the deficit in half on a 2-on-1 rush 12:43 into the third. Greg Wolfe’s snapshot beat UMass goalie Steve Mastalerz (31 saves) short side before his momentum carried him into the net, taking Mastalerz with him in the process.

That was as close as the Spartans got. Mastalerz stood tall and made multiple crucial saves to preserve the lead in the final minutes of the game.

“If you watch Steve, he’s best when he’s quiet,” Micheletto said. “He was 6-foot-3 tonight. He played his angles well and he let pucks hit him when he needed too and he exploded into saves when he also needed to. I couldn’t have asked for a better performance.”

Gracel closed the game with an empty netter.

Sheary, who was named captain hours before the game, was quick to point out that the home crowd helped with UMass’ energy level.

“It definitely helps us with the fans behind us,” Sheary said. “I think the change of the student section really helped us get on that goalie, we were peppering him all night and finally got a couple to go in.”

The student section was moved to the south end of the Mullins Center, while the UMass bench was moved to the east side.

“I might be a little bit biased, but I thought that was a fun college hockey game,” Micheletto said. “Great atmosphere, fantastic turnout by our student body.”

UMass will play again Saturday night against Michigan State at 7 p.m.

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