UMass hockey notebook: Michigan roots at core of Minutemen’s lineup ahead of series against Wolverines

  • UMass right wing Reed Lebster (13) fights for the puck behind the net against Minnesota State in the second period during the season opener at the Mullins Center. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 1/5/2022 4:54:17 PM

Cast-offs, UMass hockey coach Greg Carvel called them.

Cal Kiefiuk originally committed to Michigan. Red Lebster pledged to Michigan State. Matthew Kessel originally planned to go to Miami (Ohio).

“We just take all the Michigan kids that the other schools don't think are good enough. Apparently, that's our recruiting strategy,” Carvel said. “But they’re kids that were a little desperate, and we showed that we wanted them and had interest in them.”

No. 10 UMass has six Michiganders on its roster as it prepares to face the sixth-ranked Wolverines this weekend in Ann Arbor: Kessel (Bloomfield Hills), Kiefiuk (Macomb), Ryan Lautenbach (Brighton), Lebster (Grand Rapids), Oliver McDonald (Grosse Pointe) and Ryan Sullivan (Grosse Pointe). They’ve accounted for 33 total points for the Minutemen and 13 goals. Lebster leads the way with four goals and six assists.

“The kids that we got from Michigan have been huge for the program,” Carvel said, then he joked, “it’s why we call ourselves the University of Michigan, not the University of Massachusetts.”

Kessel, Kiefiuk and Lebster have been on the team the longest as juniors, and answered questions for younger players from the area about coming to UMass. Lebster was slightly separate in Grand Rapids, but many of the others played with and against each other for high-level youth organizations in the Detroit area like HoneyBaked or Little Caesars.

“We had a pretty good relationship going into school together,” Kiefiuk said.

Nothing about Amherst or the area drew the players away from home. Most pointed to the way the coaching staff welcomed them along with their track record.

“The coaching staff here pushes players to be their best, and we all come here to better ourselves and play good hockey,” Kessel said.

Conversely, Michigan has one player from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: sophomore Matty Beniers of Hingham, the second overall pick in last summer’s NHL Draft by the Seattle Kraken.

BACK IN THE SADDLE – UMass sophomore forward Josh Lopina played his first game in 66 days when he started Monday against Merrimack. The Anaheim Ducks prospect hadn’t seen the ice since Oct. 29 at Merrimack, the fifth game of the season.

Though he didn’t register a point, Lopina appreciated the opportunity to shake his personal rust off after a two-month layoff.

“I've never had a major injury in my career before. So that was kind of a first time through that for me,” Lopina said. “The guys kept my spirits high, and it was really fun to be back out there with them on the ice again.”

Since he was sidelined with a hand injury, Lopina was able to spend time in the training room on an exercise bike maintaining his conditioning in order to get back on the ice early. He couldn’t hold a stick, but that aided in his return since he didn't have to rebuild his fitness as much.

“I had a couple of pins sticking out of my hand for a while so I couldn't do much with the arms or upper body, but we made it work,” Lopina said. “I feel like I'm in a pretty good spot now.”

The other Minutemen helped Lopina stay engaged and like he was part of the team even when he wasn’t on the lineup card.

“All the guys, they were there for us, there for me, reaching out. It's hard being injured. You're kind of away from the team doing your own thing while they're practicing,” Lopina said. “But I still felt the love. No one really gets left behind here.”

SCHEDULING SAUSAGE – More than other sports like football and basketball, hockey coaches make their own schedules. That’s why it was easy for UMass and Merrimack to pull together Monday’s nonconference matchup after both Hockey East programs had weekend games canceled.

Merrimack coach Scott Borek reached out to Carvel, and they hammered it out quickly.

“All of us are on guard as soon as we get a game canceled. We look to see who else got canceled. Scott did that pretty quickly,” Carvel said. “Thankfully he did. We needed to play a game. The guys had been off for a long time. I'm glad it happened and I'm glad the team performed well.”

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

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