Outscored Wildcats 9-3 in regular-season sweep
Over the course of the regular season, the Massachusetts hockey team never lost consecutive games.
In seven affairs, the Minutemen (26-8-0, 18-6-0 Hockey East Association) showed a prowess for quickly hitting the reset button, outscoring their opponents 33-15 after losses en route to bounce-back wins.
When New Hampshire arrives at the Mullins Center to kick off the Hockey East playoffs with a quarterfinal matchup on Friday, that same resiliency exuded by No. 3 UMass during its six-month, 34-game regular season schedule will play a crucial role in determining the group’s postseason success.
Coming off an unsettling stumble at the hands of a non-playoff contender last Friday, the Minutemen turn around and hit the reset once again as they look to add a new chapter to their record-setting run.
“We try to take the emotion out of preparation,” coach Greg Carvel said. “We’ve had a lot of discussions since Friday about no regrets and building on the incredible season we’ve had and making sure we take care of business. I think this time of year, you always get your team’s best, so that’s what I’m expecting.”
With lessons learned in the aftermath of the uncharacteristic defeat, UMass sets its sights on the Wildcats (12-13-9, 8-10-6 HEA), who qualified as the eight-seed following an up-and-down season.
“They’re very similar to what we were last year,” Carvel said Tuesday. “I think you’ve seen a team that’s gained confidence throughout the year. They had to fight and scratch to get in and I know those teams are dangerous; the ones that have had to rev up their game to get in as opposed to teams that coast in.”
The Wildcats boast five scorers with 20+ regular-season points, most notably forwards Liam Blackburn and Ara Nazarian, who’ve recorded 10-plus goals, as well as offensive-minded blueliner, Max Gildon.
Four of UMass’ defensemen are freshmen and they’ll be put to the test in their first-ever playoff action.
“They score goals and they’ve got big defenseman,” Carvel added. “If we play the way we’re supposed to then we’ll be alright, but if we aren’t ready and our standard falls off, then we’ll have our hands full.”
On special teams, UNH ranks 24th in the nation on the penalty kill and 29th on the power play.
In net, Mike Robinson owns a 11-10-8 record with five shutouts and a .920 save percentage.
“They’re a very high skilled team,” John Leonard said. “They’ve got smaller forwards who like to create offense and come out of corners. You just have to play physical against them and be able to handle that. They’re a good team, so you can’t underestimate them or anything, you’ve got to come out strong.”
Coming out strong has been a major focus for UMass entering the postseason as the leagues’ top seed.
“With the playoffs here now, we’re in a whole different territory where we can’t afford to miss the first 5-10 minutes of a game,” Carvel said. “We’ve overcome it a few times, but in the playoffs, that’s going to be tough to overcome. So, that will be an indicator of where we’re at. I think we’ll be ready to go.”
At the start of the playoffs, four different Minutemen fill out the top-four spots on the Hockey East scoring list: Mitchell Chaffee, Cale Makar, Leonard and Jacob Pritchard.
To set the tone for the series in Game 1 on Friday, UMass will look to its main guys to set the wheels in motion in the first 20 minutes.
For Leonard and the remaining Minutemen who weren’t around to witness the program’s first playoff series victory since 2007 last season, another chance to chase a league title has been long-awaited.
“Everyone’s positive,” he said. “It hasn’t happened here in a long time so we’re really excited about it. [But] nothing comes easy in the playoffs. We just have to play hard and the rest will take care of itself.”
Puck drop for Game 1, as well as Games 2 and 3 (if necessary), is set for 7 p.m. at the Mullins Center.
Liam Flaherty can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @_LiamFlaherty.