UMass hockey: Competitive Hockey East slate has Northeastern on tap for Minutemen

UMass goalie Michael Hrabal returned to the lineup last weekend after competing for Czechia in the World Junior Championships in Sweden.

UMass goalie Michael Hrabal returned to the lineup last weekend after competing for Czechia in the World Junior Championships in Sweden. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

UMass defenseman Ryan Ufko carries the puck against UConn earlier this season. 

UMass defenseman Ryan Ufko carries the puck against UConn earlier this season.  CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 01-16-2024 3:48 PM

AMHERST — After tying against UConn, which led to a shootout loss, UMass hockey head coach Greg Carvel said in his postgame presser that his team needs to “learn how to win.”

With about one-third of its schedule remaining – all against Hockey East teams – before postseason play, now would be a great time for UMass to acquire that skill.

The Minutemen offense has for the most part produced throughout the season, aside from UMass’ most recent game (a 4-1 loss) against Merrimack on Saturday. That group is averaging about 3.5 goals per contest. Carvel’s biggest concern is the play of his defense. In order for the Minutemen to put themselves in position to achieve their lofty goals, that unit needs to improve in each phase.

“I think we’re in a pretty good spot offensively, but I think defensively we gotta tighten up,” Carvel said at Tuesday afternoon’s press conference. “Our penalty kill needs to be better, our goaltending needs to be better, our play in front of our goaltender needs to better so he can be better… [Defense is] our focus right now. We’re a pretty good offensive team... We got depth up front, power play is consistent. For me, right now, it’s the defending part which I’d like us to be better at.”

UMass’ defense is going to get some reinforcements for Saturday’s game at Northeastern (4 p.m., ESPN-Plus), as graduate senior defenseman Samuli Niinisaari is slated to return to the Minutemen lineup. Niinisaari hasn’t played in a game since Dec. 1, and the coaching staff made sure he was fully healthy and ready to go before putting him back on the ice.

“We’ve been real patient with him, but he will be available for this weekend,” Carvel said of Niinisaari. “We just wanted to make sure; I thought we were gonna have him back last week, and that would’ve been nice. I have full trust in my trainer, and he tells me when [players are] ready. He told me today [Niinisaari] is ready.”

Back in early November, UMass defeated Northeastern 2-1 in overtime in the two teams’ only meeting this season.

But that was well over two months ago, and the Huskies are playing their best hockey of the year right now. Since Dec. 1, Northeastern has defeated No. 1 Boston College, tied No. 3 Quinnipiac, lost in OT to No. 2 Boston University, and beaten Vermont. The Huskies are healthier for their contest with UMass this time around, but Carvel kept his answer simple when asked about the matchup.

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“They were missing bodies when we played them. I know they had injuries they were dealing with,” Carvel said. “They got off to a slow start, but have been playing well. I don’t have a comment other than Jerry [Keefe] is a good coach and they got good players, just like every other team in this league.”

The Hockey East is always a difficult conference, but this year specifically seems to be a gauntlet. The top three ranked teams in the country according to USCHO.com are all Hockey East teams, and five teams currently sit inside the top 10. UMass checks in at No. 12 in the most recent poll.

Over the weekend, there were four two-game series in Hockey East play. Each one of them wound up as a split, including UMass and Merrimack. Carvel expects it to be a rock fight the rest of the way, and that’s specifically why he was so upset after missed opportunities against Cornell and Clarkson earlier this season.

“Yeah, I think it’s gonna be really difficult [to come up with two wins in one weekend],” Carvel said. “That’s why your non-conference schedule is so important, because to me, your non-conference almost determines if you’re gonna make the NCAA tournament – it determines how many teams in our league are gonna make the NCAA tournament. That’s why the Cornell and Clarkson games were really big, and I was a little frustrated we couldn’t find ways to win those games. I expect a lot of one win, one loss weekends.”

Including Northeastern, UMass (12-6-3) has 13 games remaining on its schedule. Seven of those come against teams ranked in the top 20, and three of the other six come against teams they’ve either tied or lost to already this year. It’s not going to be an easy regular-season finish down the stretch for the Minutemen, but it’s certainly going to help prepare them for playoff hockey should they get that far.

Garrett Cote can be reached at gcote@gazettenet.com