UMass hockey notebook: Minutemen will be at full strength for Union series

  • Josh Lopina will return to the UMass hockey lineup for the first time since Oct. 29 when the Minutemen open the second half of the season Friday at Union. THOM KENDALL/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Garrett Wait will return to the UMass hockey lineup for the first time since Nov. 13 against Boston University when the Minutemen open the second half of the season Friday at Union. AP file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 12/28/2021 3:55:49 PM

The gift every UMass hockey fan wanted was waiting under the tree.

All of the Minutemen’s front line forwards injured during the first half of the season — sophomore Josh Lopina, senior Garrett Wait and juniors Cal Kiefiuk and Eric Faith — are “ready to roll” coach Greg Carvel said on Tuesday.

Lopina has been out since Oct. 29 against Merrimack, while Wait hasn’t played since Nov. 13 against Boston University.

“You can’t replace what Josh Lopina brings to our team, face offs, size, strength, scores ugly goals around the net, physical. He really embodies our identity,” Carvel said. “Garrett Wait is the guy that over the last year became a very important player, scored a lot of big goals.”

Kiefiuk returned in UMass’ last game, a Dec. 8 overtime win over Merrimack, and Faith played in UMass’ past three games, but both missed nearly a month.

“Guys that I think are ready to take steps and become big difference makers in games that have been waiting a long time,” Carvel said. “I think there’s a lot of pieces that are lining up, and we have to play games and make that stuff come to fruition.”

In their absences, UMass had to elevate players from lower in its lineup. Against Merrimack the last time out, freshmen Lucas Mercuri and Ryan Lautenbach played on the first line with Bobby Trivigno. Now that Lopina and Wait are healthy again, Mercuri and Lautenbach will slot into UMass’ third or fourth lines with more than a month of experience at the top of the lineup.

“So your third and fourth line’s pretty damn good now if you were counting on those kids to be first line players a few weeks ago,” Carvel said.

UMass hasn’t played in three weeks, but the 12th-ranked Minutemen entered the holiday break second in Hockey East with 24 points. UMass Lowell leads the league with 25.

“We haven’t played to the standard I think we should be playing and we had good growth in the first half. I expect the team to take a step forward. January's going to be a tough month,” Carvel said.

After the Minutemen’s New Year’s Eve/Day series at Union, they travel to No. 3 Michigan the next weekend then face No. 13 Northeastern, ever-dangerous BU, No. 16 Providence and the 15th-ranked River Hawks to close the month.

“This team needs to find a rhythm, find a groove, build on its identity and be better than what it’s been in the first half,” Carvel said.

LOVE YA, SCOTT MORROW – The only Minuteman not available for the weekend series is defenseman Scott Morrow, who is currently representing the United States at the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship currently underway in western Canada.

Morrow didn’t play in Sunday’s win over Slovakia, and the USA’s second game against Switzerland on Tuesday was postponed due to two positive tests in the American camp. The team’s quarantine status will be evaluated later to determine whether it can compete in the next preliminary round game, scheduled for Wednesday against Sweden, the IIHF said in a statement.

Morrow is the fourth Minuteman to participate in the last five tournaments.

“I think you see a little bump in their play (when they come back). Anytime you have that kind of experience, you're gonna develop that,” Carvel said. “Maybe it's just a confidence thing. But I do feel with (Cale Makar) and (Zac Jones) and (Filip Lindberg) when they came back, they're just a little more mature and a little more experienced. Hopefully Scott gets in some games so that he can be of the same growth.”

OUT OF AN ABUNDANCE OF CAUTION – Amidst a national rise in COVID-19 cases fueled by the Omicron variant, some college hockey series are being postponed and canceled. Penn State/Maine and RIT/Sacred Heart were called off Tuesday.

It’s a familiar feeling after COVID outbreaks ravaged last season’s schedule.

“I won't be surprised to see a lot of games canceled,” Carvel said. “We're in very unchartered waters with how we're going to handle this variant.”

UMass was awaiting test results from its players Tuesday returning from their break, which will go a long way toward determining if the series at Union is played at all.

“I think over the next couple weeks everyone’s going to play it safe,” Carvel said.

NO-LYMPICS – After the NHL withdrew its players from the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, theories floated about where the players would come from. Some turned to college hockey as a possibility. It’s unlikely given that it would require players departing programs in the stretch run of the regular season and potentially during the NCAA tournament due to quarantine requirements.

The subject hasn't even been broached at UMass.

“If I'm a kid playing college hockey, it's the last thing on my mind that I'm going to go leave this team that I've invested all of my time and energy and to go play this random tournament against random players that's patched together,” Carvel said. “I'd be shocked if any kid on my team wanted to leave and not defend the Hockey East title and not play for a national championship so they can go play in China and get stuck in quarantine over there. I know it’s the Olympics, but is it really the Olympics this year?”

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