UMass rallies to win Hockey East regular-season title for first time

  • UMass coach Greg Carvel celebrates with the Hockey East regular-season championship following a 4-2 win over Merrimack, Thursday in North Andover. CAROLINE O’CONNOR/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass goalie Matt Murray celebrates with the Hockey East regular-season championship following a 4-2 win over Merrimack, Thursday in North Andover. CAROLINE O’CONNOR/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • The UMass hockey team celebrates with the Hockey East regular-season championship following a 4-2 win over Merrimack, Thursday in North Andover. CAROLINE O’CONNOR/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/1/2019 12:30:53 AM

NORTH ANDOVER — All season, the third period has belonged to UMass.

The final 20 minutes have been the Minutemen’s best period all season long, and that was not going to change Thursday with a conference title on the line.

Freshman Bobby Trivigno tied the game with a fantastic individual effort less than four minutes into the third. Just 18 seconds later, Jake Gaudet knocked down a shot from Cale Makar to himself and slid the puck into the net. Makar then sent a short-handed bid into the empty net to seal a 4-2 win at Merrimack that secured the Minutemen their first Hockey East regular-season championship in program history.

“That first five minutes of the third period was a real statement to me,” coach Greg Carvel said. “That’s how I wanted us to play the whole game, but I thought the first five minutes of the game were good and the first five minutes of the third were good, and that was enough to win the game.”

For just the seventh time this season, No. 2 UMass headed to the locker room after 40 minutes facing a deficit. And for the second time, it emerged victorious after 60 minutes. It was the seventh time this season UMass scored at least three goals in the third.

The comeback was sparked by captain Niko Hildenbrand, who took ownership of the locker room during the second intermission. UMass (25-7-0, 17-5-0 Hockey East) had just survived a crazy second period that featured 10 penalties, including a stretch of 9:20 in which someone was in one of the two penalty boxes. Merrimack (7-23-3, 4-17-2) entered the period trailing by a goal but finished with a 2-1 advantage courtesy of a goal 27 seconds into the stanza and one with 1:23 remaining.

But Hildenbrand’s message as simple as it was seemed to resonate with the Minutemen in a manner Carvel’s comments didn’t during the week. He spoke about having faith in his teammates and re-focusing them on finishing the task at hand and clinching Hockey East’s regular-season championship.

“He was our leader (Thursday),” Carvel said. “He had a huge blocked shot in the first period, he was vocal all throughout the game and you need it. You have good teams, but the great teams have great leaders and he stepped up (Thursday).”

Makar put the Minutemen on the board early in the game, capitalizing on the first of UMass’ seven power plays. The sophomore defenseman switched spots with freshman Marc Del Gaizo on the unit and worked his way into the backdoor area Del Gaizo has owned on UMass’ second-ranked power play.

This time, it was Makar in perfect position to slam home a goal when Jacob Pritchard’s pass bounced off Mitchell Chaffee’s stick into Makar’s path. It was the star’s first power-play goal of the season and his 12th point on the man advantage.

“Marc was doing a great job back there, he’s had so many goals from backdoor tap-ins like I had back there,” Makar said. “Regardless of who you put back there or at the top, it’s not going to matter and we showed that (Thursday). We’re fortunate in the versatility that we can have as a unit and hopefully we can keep rolling with that.”

The dominant third period helped Matt Murray set a program record for single-season wins with his 20th between the pipes for UMass. The sophomore faced just four shots in the third period and stopped all of them with ease. He had to make just 18 saves in the game, barely outdueling his own defenders who blocked 11 attempts in the game.

Murray credited his defense’s selflessness for his accomplishments and said that attitude is a major reason the Minutemen were able to win the league.

“As the same time that it’s my 20th win personally, it shows a lot about the team,” Murray said. “All the guys have been amazing at making it a relatively easy year for me compared to how it could have been. They’re diving in front of pucks headfirst and they’re putting their bodies on the line, it’s amazing to see the courage that our team has.”

The celebration will be short-lived for the Minutemen as they prepare to host Maine on Saturday before finishing the season next week at Connecticut. But Carvel said he wants his players to enjoy the moment up until practice Friday because they earned it with their play throughout the season.

Yet despite the jubilant cheers coming from the locker room at Lawler Rink on Thursday, the Minutemen understand the regular-season trophy is just one goal on the road to a much larger objective down the line.

“For what this program has been through over the years, it’s a pretty special accomplishment,” Makar said. “Obviously something we knew we were capable of the whole year. It’s special for us, but it’s just stepping stone.”

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