UMass hockey notebook: Disjointed early schedule benefits in hindsight

  • Aaron Bohlinger and the UMass hockey team have worked their way through a disjointed early schedule. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS—Chris Tucci

Staff Writer
Published: 10/20/2021 3:58:06 PM

AMHERST — The disjointed nature of the UMass hockey team’s early schedule may ultimately benefit the Minutemen.

UMass opened the season with early games against Minnesota State – two losses to one of the nation’s best teams while most of the country was playing exhibitions. Then the Minutemen took a bye weekend before sweeping AIC on Oct 16 and 17.

“I wasn’t crazy about the schedule. It was tough to put a schedule together this year. Because of COVID everyone threw games that were supposed to be played (last year in this year). We had to scratch and claw,” UMass coach Greg Carvel said. “That’s why we played Minnesota State the first weekend. They didn’t want to play us either. It wasn’t ideal. You’d like to be able to figure out what your team is before you jump into playing one of the best teams in the country.”

Next they’ll play an exhibition against Dartmouth at 7 p.m. Saturday before entering Hockey East play Halloween weekend against Merrimack. The NCAA allowed Division I schools to play one exhibition against another Division I team since they couldn’t face Canadian colleges — typical preseason opponents — due to the closed borders.

“I was glad we didn’t play and we had two weeks to focus,” Carvel said. “In hindsight it was probably a really good schedule. We got slapped early and it brought us back down to earth. Now the schedule has given us a lot of practice time, which is exactly what I think we needed.”

No. 9 UMass (2-2) is still integrating many of its 10 new players into the lineup and figuring out their roles.

“We have a lot of new people in the program. We need reps,” Carvel said.

The exhibition also works well for Dartmouth, which didn’t play at all last season, as the Ivy League didn’t sponsor any sports in the 2020-21 academic year. The Big Green last played a regular season game March 7, 2020, in an overtime ECAC playoff loss against Princeton. They visited Harvard for an exhibition Oct. 16 and will open the regular season Oct. 29 against the Crimson at home.

Carvel plans to dress every Minuteman for the game Saturday. Normally NCAA rules allow 19 skaters and two goalies, so it will give UMass a chance to play different lineup combinations and see what they have in new and young players without any pressure.

He said he’ll ask Dartmouth to play a 3-on-3 overtime period and have a shootout regardless of the score after three periods.

“It just gives us a chance to work on things and get everybody into the game. Everybody will get a chance to play and that’s great because that’s competition,” Carvel said. “Everyone in the program is of the same mindset that we need to be better, and we’re excited to get better.”

WELCOME HOME – UMass has averaged 5,628 fans per game through three contests at the Mullins Center, their impact doubly felt after the Minutemen played in front of empty arenas all year until the Frozen Four last season.

“I think we all hear it when you go to something and it’s like, ‘oh jeez it sure feels nice to do this again.’ I think we all need that in our lives, this feeling of community, and what a great place to do it, a sporting event where you come together and cheer for a common cause as opposed to going to a movie theater where you’re sitting next to people you don’t know,” Carvel said. “You do feel a different energy. I think we all used to take for granted going to a Minuteman game.”

The Minutemen also appreciate how knowledgeable their fans are between recognizing important points in the game or cheering chances or subtle effort plays.

“I tell recruits this is a hockey state. This is Massachusetts; everyone knows hockey. You want to play hockey in an area where the sport is important. That’s why I feel UMass should be a hockey school. Kids come from around the country come to Massachusetts to play hockey. They go to the south to play football. This should be a hockey school,” Carvel said. “That’s been part of our purpose is to make it that way. I coached hockey in Anaheim, Southern California, you’d sit in the game and they didn’t know what the hell was going on unless the puck went in the net then they’d jump around and shake their Mickey Mouses and the rest of it. You know when it’s a hockey knowledgeable support and we get that.”

Carvel also acknowledged the sharp drop in COVID-19 cases at UMass in recent weeks even as people are gathering for football, hockey and other contests.

“It gives us all hope we can keep sharing and keep winning hockey games,” he said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE – The Minutemen have used three distinct defensive pairing groups in four games and included a seventh defenseman in both games against AIC. Denver transfer Slava Demin started in the top pairing with Matthew Kessel against the Mavericks and dropped down to the extra defenseman spot over the course of the three weeks.

Conversely, freshman Ryan Ufko has risen from the third pairing to playing with Kessel in the starting lineup.

“We’ve got eight good defensemen, and we’re dressing seven now. I don’t like to play seven. I like to play six. I want the six guys to play consistently,” Carvel said. “We’re still in an evaluation period where we’re allowing guys to show us what they are. Hopefully before too long we’ll decide who the six are and the other two have to work their way, try to find their way into the lineup.”

Some of that shifting has been due to the return of sophomore Aaron Bohlinger to the lineup from ankle surgery. He was an extra defenseman in the opener against AIC and played in the third pairing with Felix on Saturday.

“Getting back in games mentally feels great. We all love the games, that’s why we’re here,” Bohlinger said. “To get two wins was even better.”

WEEKLY AWARDS – Matt Murray was named the Hockey East goaltender of the week Monday after he was the league’s only goalie to pick up two wins over the weekend. He saved 38 of the 41 shots he faced against AIC. It’s the graduate student’s fourth weekly conference honor.

Lucas Mercuri earned his first Hockey East freshman of the week honor after scoring the game-winner against the Yellow Jackets on Saturday for his first career goal. He also had an assist to mark his first multi-point game as a Minuteman.

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

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