AMHERST, Mass. - Just one night after being eliminated from Hockey East playoff contention, Massachusetts comes back with a strong showing, ending its season on a high note with a 3-0 win over Merrimack at the Mullins Center Saturday night.
Adam Phillips was the only multi-point scorer for the game with a goal and an assist, including the opening tally on a power play at the 5:08 mark. Conor Sheary and Colin Shea were the other two goal-scorers for UMass.
Steve Mastalerz got his fifth straight start for the Minutemen, and made 24 saves to finish the year with a 4-8-1 record with the shutout win.
Sam Marotta took the loss for the Warriors, making 30 saves on 33 shots faced.
What I Saw
- Neither team had all too much to play for, UMass in particular, but it was the Minutemen that came out playing hard and were ultimately the better team on Saturday. UMass got plenty of pressure on Marotta in the first period, and capitalized 5 minutes, 8 seconds in when Rocco Carzo hit Adam Phillips with a nice backhand feed and Phillips buried it into an open net. The Minutemen doubled their advantage at 17:42 on Conor Sheary’s second goal in as many games. Branden Gracel’s initial shot from the left circle was saved by Marotta, but Sheary gathered the rebound and easily tapped the puck in.
- Merrimack showed a deficiency in its power play this weekend, and it was especially apparent on Saturday. The Warriors had a golden chance down 1-0, 5:22 into the first period when Mike Busillo was sent off for a five-minute major and game misconduct for contact to the head. They were ineffective with the man-advantage for the first four minutes, but then an Oleg Yevenko cross-checking penalty gave them 55 seconds of 5-on-3. However, they could only get one quality chance in the sequence that went wide. Overall Merrimack went 0-for-6 on the man-advantage and did relatively little with it.
- For what it’s worth, UMass showed some positive signs going into next season with its effort on Saturday night. But I think it’s pretty clear that the Minutemen will once again depend on its first line forwards of Gracel, Sheary and Pereira. They were aided by some strong efforts by Phillips and Shea, but besides that the lack of balance will continue to hold this team back unless someone steps up from the current roster or the incoming recruiting class. One question UMass may have answered heading into next season is who the No. 1 guy in goal will be. Mastalerz has been playing the best hockey of his short career lately, while Kevin Boyle faltered in the last couple months.
- Merrimack appeared to be playing some uninspired hockey for a good portion of this game, which is not the type of rhythm a team wants to have heading into the postseason. The Warriors took too many penalties and spent 14 minutes a man down. The defense afforded UMass some prime scoring chances as well. While Saturday’s result may have no bearing on their standing in Hockey East, it’s something worth mentioning if they come out flat next weekend. The offense did have an improved energy-level for much of the night, especially compared to their effort the previous night. The Warriors were aggressive and tried to push the pace, but it didn’t come from all four lines and it resulted in little ability to convert.
What I Thought
- The story of UMass’ season can be told through two particular sequences in the second period. Sheary led a 2-on-0 opportunity in front of the net after forcing an offensive zone turnover but couldn’t complete the short pass to Shane Walsh to set up a scoring opportunity. Then later in the frame, Marotta came out of his crease to play the puck, but it was deflected and possessed by Sheary, who tried to feed a streaking Walsh in front of a wide open net. But they failed to connect and the Minutemen came up empty. Their season was one full of missed opportunities, and plays such as those define the kind of seasons that leave a team ninth in Hockey East.
- Marotta’s night could be described in two different ways based on your idea of a good night. But the Merrimack goalie could’ve definitely been better despite the lack of goal support. He made that poor decision trying to play the puck with Sheary coming in hard, and had trouble securing pucks. He looked bad on UMass’ third goal when Colin Shea’s shot deflected off the stick of a Warriors defenseman. Marotta could only get a piece of the puck trying to make the glove save and it went out and into the net. While Merrimack’s inability to score is its most glaring issue heading into the playoffs, it will need much sharper outings from Marotta to be successful.
What They Said
“I thought we played pretty well to be honest with you, we just couldn’t score…I liked how we played (Saturday), I thought we played much better than we did (Friday) for sure.” -Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy.
“We’ve had nights where we’ve done everything the right way and haven’t been rewarded. It’s been heartbreaking because they haven’t been rewarded like they should so to be able to regroup and come out with the execution that we had was really heartwarming.” -UMass coach John Micheletto.
What Else You Should Know
Gracel left the game in the second period with an apparent wrist injury after taking a hard hit into the boards. With the season being over, it’s nothing that should have any bearing on next year despite being in obvious pain after the hit.
UMass finishes ninth in the Hockey East standings and fails to qualify for the Hockey East tournament for the first time since 2002 when former coach Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon was in his second season as head man.
With the loss, Merrimack finishes its season sixth in the Hockey East standings with 29 points, and will travel to Agganis Arena to take on Boston University in the Hockey East Quarterfinals next weekend. The best-of-three series starts Friday night.