UMass defense looks to rebound against Merrimack

  • UMass sophomore defenseman Zac Jones and the Minutemen play Merrimack in a home-and-home series this weekend. UMass hosts the Warriors on Saturday and plays in North Andover on Sunday. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/4/2020 5:29:58 PM

Scoring, surprisingly, hasn’t been a problem for the UMass hockey team in its sub-.500 start. Despite losing their top two scorers from last season to the NHL, the eighth-ranked Minutemen are averaging 3.25 goals per game, good for 12th in the nation.

Their defense, however, faltered in a two-game sweep against No. 2 Boston College last weekend. UMass allowed 10 goals over the series, its most in a two-game span since also letting down 10 in the 2018 Hockey East Tournament quarterfinals against Northeastern.

“Anytime we broke down, BC was opportunistic. We gave up too many odd man rushes and too many goals on the rush and that’s what we’re going to be working on this week,” UMass coach Greg Carvel said on Tuesday. “We’ll have very specific practice plans this week. We took a look back at the last four games we’re seeing some trends, we’ll attack those in practice and discuss what we saw.”

The Minutemen have maintained that focus through the season’s first few weeks with the Hockey East schedule constantly shifting. This weekend, they’ll face Merrimack in a home-and-home. Saturday’s game is at 4:30 p.m. in Amherst, and the teams will go again at 4:30 p.m. Sunday in North Andover. NESN+ will carry the opener, while the game at Merrimack will be streamed online. WHMP-AM (1400) will air both games.

Whoever UMass faces this year, the plan will remain the same.

“My plan is we have to score three goals and we can’t give up more than two,” Carvel said. “That’s the kind of season it’s going to be for us. The margin of error is not huge.”

The Minutemen have only followed the plan once in their first four games: a season opening 5-1 win over UConn. Their offense failed to hit the magic number in the second game of that series, while the defense couldn’t contain the Huskies. Some of those lapses are due to injury. UMass (1-2-1) is without three of its top defensemen: Marc Del Gaizo, Ty Farmer and Reed Lebster.

“It sucks. Having three of your top guys out is tough. The guys who played this weekend  ... battled,” UMass sophomore defenseman Zac Jones said. “The thing is with our team, if someone comes out it’s just a time for someone new to come in and earn a spot in our lineup.”

Two freshmen – Linden Alger and Aaron Bohlinger – and a sophomore – Gianfranco Cassaro – are among the Minutemen’s regular blue liners. Jones and Matt Kessel, both NHL draft picks, have been a steadying presence as UMass’ top defensive pairing. Jones has contributed two goals and an assist, while Kessel added one of each. They’re also the top options on a power play unit that has converted 4 of 18 opportunities.

“We’ve both been growing together. Our chemistry is good,” Kessel said. “We’d been competing together all throughout practice and mini games, so I think already from the beginning of the season we’ve grown a lot together.”

The Minutemen have shown balance on offense. Nine players have scored, and so far no one has more than two goals. That production has come up and down the lineup, too.

“I expect that’s how our offense is going to be,” Carvel said. “I think we have enough offense to score three goals most nights. I think we’re good enough from scoring three goals most nights.”

Merrimack hasn’t hit the ice yet. The Warriors were voted to finish 10th in the Hockey East preseason poll. UMass won twice last season and tied the other. Merrimack went 9-22-3 last season. The Warriors haven’t beaten the Minutemen since Oct. 28, 2017.

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.



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