UMass freshmen starting to settle in

  • Zac Jones, second from left, of UMass, passes against Shane Bear, of RPI, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019 at the Mullins Center. Looking on are, from left, Ryan Mahshie, of RPI, and Cal Kiefiuk and Reed Lebster of UMass. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Cal Kiefiuk, from of UMass, passes the UMass bench after scoring against RPI in the second period, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/21/2019 9:30:16 PM
Modified: 11/21/2019 9:30:06 PM

AMHERST — After three years building up the UMass program, Greg Carvel was hopeful he would have an experienced team in his fourth season at the helm.

Instead, injuries and a strong push from the freshmen have Carvel writing in eight first-year players into the lineup on a regular basis around the nucleus he’s recruited the previous two seasons. Concerns about complacency from the Minutemen were complemented by the normal nerves about how quickly the freshmen would grasp the system.

After 10 games, however, it is clear the youngsters are starting to figure it out for No. 7 UMass. Carvel said he felt his team was a “20-man unit” in the weekend split with Boston University as the freshmen have started to be more consistent on the details it takes to win a game.

That improvement is more evident in the forwards, most of whom have shuffled in and out of the lineup on a weekly basis. The two constants have been Cal Kiefiuk and Reed Lebster, the only two freshmen forwards who have played in all 10 games for the Minutemen.

“They’re learning how to compete, that was the biggest thing,” Carvel said. “They’re both skill players, but if you watched closely, Cal was as physical of a player as we had at BU and Reed is as poised as anybody we have with the puck on their stick. They’re going to be good offensive players for us, but we demand everybody competes at a real high level and all these freshmen, they need to learn what that means at this level.”

Kiefiuk and Lebster have settled into a nice rhythm on the ice between senior captain Niko Hildenbrand on the third line. The trio has played together in seven of the first 10 games, and is the ideal lineup of comfort for the two freshmen roommates.

Not only do they have each other on the wings, but they are joined by Hildenbrand, whose 115 games make him the most experienced player on the roster. Both of them said Hildenbrand’s presence has made the adjustment easier for them this year.

“I feel comfortable out there with them,” Lebster said. “Having Cal as my roommate, we have some chemistry already from him being my roommate. And it’s been nice to have Niko out there in case I have any questions on the bench, I can ask him and he’s been really helping me.”

The adjustment process tends to be harder on players like Kiefiuk and Lebster, who are known more for their scoring prowess. There is less time for players to make decisions at the college level and the competition is now a bit stronger and can move people off the puck easier.

Those physical differences were harder on both freshmen than the mental adjustments they’ve had to make, they said.

“Everything happens a little faster at this level, so you’ve got to be on your toes and be ready for anything when you’ve got to adjust quicker,” Kiefiuk said. “So it’s probably the speed for sure then obviously the strength. Some guys are 20-something years old, so some guys are men and they’re a little stronger so you definitely need to play bigger than you are.”

Both Kiefiuk and Lebster said the game has slowed down for them tremendously over the past six weeks. Now the objective is to continue to improve their skills away from the puck, which is always a concern for Carvel.

They have contributed offensively with seven goals and four assists combined, but now they are also contributing to the overall checking system UMass employs. It’s an area of the game the Minutemen work on a lot in practice through a variety of drills designed to induce competitiveness and hard battles.

Kiefiuk said the intensity in practice — both in terms of effort and physicality — has impressed upon him what he needs to do in order to further gain Carvel’s trust.

“With the way we run things here and the way we want to play, it’s kind of just the standard,” Kiefiuk said. “You know if you don’t bring the compete every night, you’ll probably be out of the lineup, so everybody has done a fantastic job at keeping up with it. Even in practice, I’ve never practiced this hard before.”

The Minutemen (7-3-0, 3-3-0 Hockey East) are hoping those practices continue to translate into the games as they prepare for a weekend home-and-home series with conference foe Merrimack (2-7-1, 1-3-1 HEA) that begins Friday at 7 p.m. at the Mullins Center.

Josh Walfish can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at

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