UMass hockey: Minutemen open Hockey East tournament with quarterfinal date at No. 4 Providence on Saturday

UMass players huddle up prior to their season opener against AIC at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

UMass players huddle up prior to their season opener against AIC at the Mullins Center in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By THOMAS JOHNSTON

Staff Writer

Published: 03-15-2024 3:14 PM

It’s now or never time for the Massachusetts hockey team. 

After suffering a pair of losses to Maine to close out the Hockey East regular season, the Minutemen find themselves ranked 15th in PairWise heading into this weekend’s Hockey East quarterfinal round. Those losses to the Black Bears also dropped UMass down to the No. 5 seed in the Hockey East Tournament, where it’ll now be on the road for its quarterfinal matchup instead of playing at the Mullins Center. 

The destination? The Minutemen will head to Schneider Arena to face off against No. 4 Providence on Saturday at 4 p.m., with UMass in must-win territory to stay alive in the Hockey East tourney as well as to have a shot at making the NCAA tournament. The winner of Saturday’s tilt will advance to the semifinals next weekend in Boston.

“There’s a lot of reasons to want to win this game,” Minutemen coach Greg Carvel said. “There’s a lot of reasons to have wanted to win the last game. To me, it’s not any different to Saturday’s game against Maine where we had home ice playoffs and NCAA bubble. It was the same situation. It’s win or go home and we have to win. It’s desperation time. We’ve put ourselves in this situation and we only have ourselves to blame or pull ourselves out of it to earn another game.”

Carvel spoke prior to the Maine series about how feels it’s more important who you’re playing rather than where the game is played. 

If that’s true, UMass (19-12-3, 12-10-2 Hockey East) should feel confident heading to Providence on Saturday. 

In the eight years under Carvel, the Minutemen hold a 13-9-2 record against the Friars. In the last 10 matchups UMass is 7-3, including a pair of wins this season as the Minutemen knocked off Providence 3-2 on the road and then beat the Friars 2-1 in overtime at the Mullins. Those games took place in November. 

“I’ve been here eight years and you look at our record against certain teams, it’s stronger against some than others,” Carvel said. “I can’t put my finger on it. Hopefully we play well enough to earn it. That’s the bottom line.”

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There won’t be any surprises when the two teams hit the ice on Saturday. Providence coach Nate Leaman has been with the Friars for 13 years, and Carvel said Leaman’s team plays similar to the way UMass plays. 

The stats back that up. Providence (18-12-4, 11-9-4) is scoring 2.91 goals per game while the Minutemen are putting in 3.03 goals per game. Defensively, the Friars are giving up 2.35 goals per game — the sixth best mark in the country — while UMass isn’t far behind, allowing 2.76 goals per game. 

“I don't expect any wrinkles,” Carvel said. “Their program and ours have both been successful playing a certain style and it’s very similar. It’ll probably come down to goaltending and special teams. It’ll be an emotional, passionate game. Strap your chin strap — it’ll be one of those games.” 

Jack Musa and Scott Morrow have provided the top offensive production for the Minutemen this season, both tallying 29 points. Ryan Ufko sits at 25 points while Aydar Suniev (24), Ryan Lautenbach (21), Lucas Mercuri (21) and Kenny Connors (20) have all broken the 20-point mark, showcasing how UMass has multiple options on offense and aren’t just led by one line. Musa and Suniev are tied for the team lead in goals with 12. 

Michael Hrabel is 15-9-1 in 26 starts in goal for the Minutemen this season, closing out the regular season with a 2.46 goals allowed average and a .916 save percentage, as the second round draft pick has come on strong late in the season. 

Nick Poisson (24 points), Chase Yoder (20 points) and Tanner Adams (20 points) are the Friars’  most productive offensive players this year, Yoder leading the team with 11 goals. In net, Philip Svedeback has made 34 starts, holding an 18-12-4 record, giving up 2.29 goals per game and has a .900 save percentage. 

“They haven’t changed much in the eight years I’ve been in the league,” Carvel said. “They put a lot of pucks to the net. It’ll be a heavy game, low scoring game, physical game, emotional game. The game at Providence earlier in the year was a good 60-minute effort from our team. We’ll need similar, if not better.” 

A close, tightly-fought game is expected on Saturday, and if it’s close, there’s no team better prepared to play in a one-goal type of game than the Minutemen. 

Of UMass’ 34 games this season, 21 have been decided by one goal or less. The Minutemen closed out the regular season with six straight one goal contests, and as mentioned earlier, both games against Providence were decided by one goal. The Friars are also fighting for an NCAA berth, and are one spot ahead of UMass at No. 14 in the most recent PairWise Rankings.

“I think we lead the country in one-goal games,” Carvel said. “Tack two more on. We’re pretty used to it. I don’t remember the last time we didn’t play a one-goal game. I don’t know what that says about our team but we have a lot of experience in it. Going into Lowell I knew it would be a 2-1 game on the road. I expect this game at Providence to be 2-1 or 3-2.” 

Postseason awards

The Hockey East Association announced its 2023-24 Pro Ambitions All-Rookie Team and six other season-long awards on Wednesday, as voted by the league’s 11 head coaches.

Ufko, as well as Boston College’s Eamon Powell, won the Len Ceglarski Sportsmanship Award.

Amherst native Ryan Leonard, playing for Boston College, was a unanimous selection to the Pro Ambitions All-Rookie team.