Amherst, Mass. - With the eighth and final Hockey East playoff spot on the line, Massachusetts used a three-goal third period to top Maine 5-2.
Joel Hanley led the Minutemen with three assists, two of which came in the third period on goals by Zack LaRue and Conor Sheary. Kevin Czepiel finished it with an empty-netter with 44 seconds remaining in the game.
Down 2-0 after the first period, the Black Bears scored twice in less than two minutes to even things up. First Jake Rutt put home a power play goal on a wrist shot 5 minutes, 36 seconds into the second period. Then Bill Norman put home the equalizer at 7:16.
Steve Mastalerz got the win in goal for UMass, making 23 saves. Martin Ouellette started for Maine coming off a big night on Friday, but wasn’t the same player between the pipes, making 22 saves in a losing effort.
What I Saw
- This was not the same Martin Ouellette that was in goal for Maine the night before. The junior netminder single-handedly beat the Minutemen with his 30-save shutout performance that included a pair of stops on breakaway chances and one of the saves of the year on Friday. However, Ouellette found himself in trouble early when Adam Phillips buried home a rebound off a Rocco Carzo shot 5 minutes, 51 seconds into the first period. Branden Gracel added to that less than two minutes later when he scored on a scorching snapper from the left wing that beat Ouellette glove-side high. After settling down and making some more key saves to keep the game tied after the second period, Ouellette struggled again in the third. First one a goal by Zack LaRue after failing to cover Gracel’s initial shot, Then another on a one-timer from Hanley to Sheary. Ouellette was clearly not playing with the same confidence out there that he had on Friday, much of that can be credited to the fact that the Minutemen got to him early.
- On the other side of the ice was Steve Mastalerz, who capped off an overall good weekend with Saturday’s performance. The sophomore goalie shut out the Black Bears in the first and third period, which was enough to overcome a couple of bad goals let in during that stretch early in the second. Mastalerz has been most effective making saves with his body, and with many of Maine’s shots heading in that direction, it made for a strong night for him. Saturday’s start comes one night after coming in relief for Kevin Boyle, who was pulled after allowing a pair of second period goals in a short span of time. Mastalerz held Maine scoreless the rest of the way, and did enough to keep UMass in the game despite the loss.
- One of the things that has been an issue for UMass during its recent five-game losing streak prior to Saturday’s win has been its lack of depth. The Minutemen have been dependent on the play of its top line of Sheary, Michael Pereira and Gracel, and haven’t really gotten much help from anywhere else. While the trio had yet another solid night, accounting for a pair of goals, it was other players that proved to be the difference-makers in the win. Fourth-line winger LaRue scored the eventual game-winner on his first goal of the season 2:55 into the third period. The sophomore came crashing in after Gracel’s shot on goal, and while Ouellette was trying to secure the puck with his glove, LaRue poked the puck into the back of the net.
What I Thought
- This weekend’s series all came down to the play of the goaltenders. Although none of UMass’ three netminder’s accolades even come close to that of Ouellette, they finally have reason to settle on one guy for the rest of the season. Boyle hit his peak for the Minutemen back in October and November, but hasn’t even been close to the same player since. This has opened the door for Mastalerz, who has been strong even in the midst of a five-game losing-streak. His confidence is at a new level, and it showed as he quickly shrugged off a pair of bad goals in the second period to put together a solid performance the rest of the way. It seems all of the Minutemen’s blowout losses in this recent stretch have come with Boyle playing, and with a crucial final four games remaining, it’ll be likely that UMass coach John Micheletto rides out Mastalerz down the stretch.
- Maine’s biggest problem in Saturday’s game has been one that has plagued it all season: it’s inability to score. None of the Black Bears four goals this weekend weren’t too spectacular, especially on Saturday. However, it was the lack of quality chances in the first and third periods that really stood out. Maine took six shots in the first period, and all of them came from the outside while many more were well off target. Such was the case in the third. UMass continued to pressure Ouellette with quality chances, while the Black Bears struggled to generate any kind of chances to build the momentum.
- There’s no question that Hanley and Conor Allen create UMass’ best defensive tandem, and Saturday was the first time they’ve been alongside each other in the starting lineup for weeks. Their chemistry together makes them a threat on both sides of the ice, and they’re scoring abilities were put on display with Hanley finishing plus-4 and Allen plus-3. Both got in the assist column for Sheary’s third period tally.
What They Said
“We kind of found our way again, cause they’re fun to watch, they’re fun to be around. It was nice to see them get back to doing what they like to do, they’re good at doing and it makes us successful.” -UMass coach John Micheletto.
“I imagine it’ll come down to the last night. Both teams have four games left, everyone’s playing hard and competing hard right now so we’re down one point and we need to find a way to make that up.” -Maine coach Tim Whitehead said of the playoff race.
Whitehead also gave updates on the injury front, saying he doesn’t expect sophomore forward Connor Leen back “anytime soon, if at all this season.” He also confirmed that senior defenseman Nick Pryor will be out for the season, while Kyle Beattie and Joey Diamond are hopeful for next week.
What Else You Should Know
With the win, UMass snaps a five-game losing-streak to pull ahead of Maine by a point for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Hockey East standings with four games remaining for each team.
The Black Bears get two games at home against Northeastern next weekend, while UMass travels to Durham for a pair against New Hampshire next weekend.