AMHERST, Mass. — Massachusetts shook off an 8-2 loss two nights earlier to rival UMass Lowell to earn a 3-1 victory over Vermont Tuesday night at the Mullins Center. Junior Branden Gracel scored twice for the Minutemen against a Vermont team that strove to limit scoring chances for its opponent.
UMass goaltender Kevin Boyle earned the start after the spending the entire 8-2 debacle watching from the bench. The sophomore made 24 saves and killed off four Vermont power plays along with his defense.
What I Saw
The obvious storyline between these two schools is the connection between UMass coach John Micheletto and Vermont. Micheletto spent nine seasons in Burlington with the Catamounts, including five as associate head coach under Kevin Sneddon.
In addition, UMass assistant Joey Gasparini and director of hockey operations John Gobeil followed Micheletto to Amherst, joining the staff in the summer.
“There was not a lot of emotion during the game,” Micheletto said. “There was more emotion when I saw [the former players and coach Sneddon] arrive on Monday and the skate this morning. Seeing people that have been friendly faces for a long time, it’s always great to catch up. Once the puck drops it’s really hard to have any sentimentality at all.”
After the game, Sneddon indicated that although he does not frequently communicate with his former assistant during the season, he did share a few moments with Micheletto before the game.
The Minutemen entered the first period looking infinitely more confident and calm compared with Sunday’s effort. UMass methodically controlled possession and generated scoring chances through hard work on and off the puck. One of the biggest differences from Sunday — aside from the lopsided scoreline — was the Minutemen limiting its mistakes and turnovers in the neutral zone.
Recently converted UMass forward Adam Phillips appeared comfortable with his role on the first power play unit. Unlike year’s past, specifically his freshman year, Phillips stations himself in the left slot and launches one-timers at the opposing goalie. As a first-year player in 2010-11, Phillips scored 10 goals (with half coming on the power play) primarily from the blueline. Phillips was one of the Minutemen’s top two-way threats that season, before struggling last year. Making progress with his new role, he created several good chances with his lively slapshot Tuesday night.
Despite Phillips’ comfort, it was not enough for UMass to extend its season-long power-play streak. The Minutemen had scored in every game previously, including twice in Sunday’s blow-out loss to UML. In that game, UMass executed two 5-on-3 power play opportunities to perfection. The team was not without chances Tuesday night. The Minutemen went 0-for-4 with the man advantage.
Vermont goaltender Brody Hoffman was the most dependable player for the Catamounts Tuesday night. Though he was certainly aided by his defensemen and backchecking forwards, Hoffman consistently made saves as the Minutemen created chances. Who would replace four-year starter Rob Madore in net was one of the most significant question marks facing the Catamounts entering the season.
What I Thought
It’s easy to see why the Catamounts have almost eclipsed their Hockey East point total from last season this early in the year. Vermont looks noticeably more disciplined defensively. The Catamounts have traditionally played a system that limits opponents’ opportunities down the middle of the ice. This season, the team appears much more apt to execute the system to success. If it wasn’t for a pair of bad defensive zone turnovers, Vermont could have easily left Amherst with at least one point.
For the most part, the UMass forwards came out aggressively on the forecheck. All four lines displayed extra effort at times to dig the puck out of their opponent’s zone to create offense. Effort in this area is a key part of their gameplan for every match. In this context, Michael Pereira had one of his strongest games in a Minuteman uniform Tuesday night. In previous seasons, the junior’s benefit to his team has been consistently appearing on the scoresheet. Against the Catamounts, however, Pereira offered a strong effort off the puck in all zones with aggressive forechecking and backchecking. He also set-up the Minutemen’s insurance goal in the third period. He broke into the zone on a 2-on-1 rush and fed Gracel for an emphatic finish to seal the game.
What They Said
Sneddon on Vermont’s defensive breakdowns: “We had two absolutely inexcusable turnovers that UMass managed to capitalize on. Two critical turnovers in key parts of the game certainly did not help our cause. [Not converting on the 5-on-3] was the backbreaking. We might need to make some changes in who we have out there.”
Micheletto on “They do a nice job of slowing the tempo down. We were patient and took advantage of our opportunities when they came to us. We pushed the pace as best we could, whether it was with the man down or 5-on-5. I thought tonight was a good response for our guys.”
Boyle on killing off Vermont 5-on-3 power in the third: “They can be a huge momentum swing for either team. Fortunately, the defense did a great job blocking shots in front of me.”
What They Didn’t Say
It was obvious from the demeanor of Micheletto and the players after the game that they desperately wanted to prove that Sunday’s performance was an aberration and not a reflection on the Minutemen as a hockey team. UMass’s discipline was impressive considering their performance against Lowell was the antithesis of that level of effort.
What Else You Should Know
The Catamounts welcome Minnesota to Burlington for a two-game series this weekend. Facing the No. 4 ranked Golden Gophers should prove to be one of the biggest challenges of the season for Vermont. Though, it should be noted that Vermont defeated UM on the road last season early in its six-win campaign.
For the Minutemen, this completes a three-games-in-five-nights stretch. The team is off until Saturday night when it meets Quinnipiac at the Mullins Center as a part of its five-game home stand.