Everyone’s hyping up the UMass hockey series at Michigan except the Minutemen

  • The UMass hockey team makes their way onto the ice for the season opener against Minnesota State on Saturday night at the Mullins Center in Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

  • Massachusetts players gather around Zac Jones (24) after he scored against Minnesota Duluth during the first period of an NCAA men's Frozen Four hockey semifinal in Pittsburgh, Thursday, April 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic) Keith Srakocic

Staff Writer
Published: 1/7/2022 6:53:59 PM

The hype surrounding the UMass hockey team’s weekend series at Michigan began building the moment the schedule arrived in June.

It was the defending national champion facing college hockey’s most heralded team in years. Four Wolverines went in the top five of this summer’s NHL Draft. Michigan was ranked second and third in the two preseason polls. The Wolverines have spent time at No. 1.

“Obviously, this is a game that a lot of people circled on the calendar before the season started. We were the returning champions. They were the anointed champions for this coming year,” UMass coach Greg Carvel said.

The two teams will settle it over a two-game series broadcast on national TV starting at 5 p.m. Saturday (Big Ten Network) and 4 p.m. Sunday (ESPNU). It will be the first ever meeting between the two programs.

No. 6 Michigan (14-6) rosters 13 NHL draft picks, the second-most in the country behind Minnesota (15). The Wolverines lead the Big Ten with 23 points in 12 games. They have the nation’s third-best offense (3.86 goals per game) and eighth-best scoring margin, winning by an average of 1.43 goals.

The Big Ten’s top four scorers play for Michigan. Kent Johnson (fifth overall pick by Columbus) and Owen Power (No. 1 overall to Buffalo) are tied with 23 points. Power is third in the nation with 20 assists.

Matty Beniers  (No. 2 overall to Seattle) and Brendan Brisson (first round pick in 2020) both have 22 points and co-lead Michigan with 11 goals each. Beniers, a Hingham native, ranks third in the country with seven power-play goals.

Goalie Erik Portillo is fourth in the conference with a 2.37 goals-against average and fifth with a .971 save percentage.

All that star power isn’t blinding the Minutemen, however.

“Well, we played (Boston University), (Boston College), Providence. They all have lots of draft picks. We have lots of draft picks. It doesn’t matter how many draft picks team has,” Carvel said. “We focus on what we have to do. You guys are trying to make this bigger game than it is. Two good hockey teams are gonna play each other.”

No. 10 UMass has faced three teams this season ranked during the meeting: No. 5 Minnesota State, No. 7 Providence and No. 15 UMass Lowell. The Minutemen went 3-2-1 in those matchups. They haven’t lost in regulation since the Mavericks swept them to open the year.

“My job is to make them play their best every game. Doesn’t matter who they’re playing,” Carvel said. “I can’t go in and be like, ‘Hey guys, we’re playing this team this week. We got to be really good.’ I can’t do that and then the next week, so the next game isn’t as important. If I act like that to my players, I’m doing them a disservice.”

The Minutemen (10-4-2) have been aware all season of the extra effort their opponents will give to try and take down the defending national champion.

“You’re the defending champion. And so, you are that until you’re not. And we still are. And I feel like we get really good games out of our opponents because of that,” Carvel said. “it’s great that that’s the standard that expectation that you’re supposed to be at a certain level. That’s my standard. I think we should be the top team. And I’m at a point now where I don’t accept losing. Screw that.”

UMass ended last season unbeaten in its last 14 games. The Minutemen are currently riding a streak of 12 consecutive games without a regulation loss.

“Pretty damn good. And we’ve fought through a lot of adversity to get there. So this would be just another step in the ladder here going into playing a good team on the road hostile environment, and it’ll be good experience for us,” Carvel said. “It’ll make us a better team.”

They’re also as complete a team as they’ve been since the opening weekend. Forwards that missed varying chunks of time in the first half are healthy like Josh Lopina and Garrett Wait.

“I’m a Midwest guy, so I grew up watching Big Ten hockey. So it’s super exciting. I got a lot of family going to the game in Michigan,” said Lopina, a  Minooka, Ill., native. “Obviously they’re really high skilled team. We’re gonna try and out compete them. Use our culture to our advantage. So it’s, it’s gonna be a really good weekend all the boys are looking forward to.”

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

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