UMass hockey: No. 1 Boston College heads to Amherst on Friday

Samuli Niinisaari (7) and the UMass hockey team will play No. 1 Boston College on Friday and Sunday.

Samuli Niinisaari (7) and the UMass hockey team will play No. 1 Boston College on Friday and Sunday. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

By THOMAS JOHNSTON

Staff Writer

Published: 02-15-2024 2:39 PM

The top-ranked team in college hockey is coming to Amherst. 

UMass, the No. 10 ranked team in PairWise, will host No. 1 Boston College at the Mullins Center on Friday before heading to Chestnut Hill to play the Eagles on Sunday at 1 p.m. in the return game at Conte Forum.

It’ll be the first matchup of the season between the Minutemen and BC, and UMass is looking to snap a six-game losing skid to the Eagles overall. 

Will the level of preparation change with the top team in the country coming to town?

“It’s no different than any other team in that we look at what their strengths are and how can we neutralize them,” UMass coach Greg Carvel said. “In that way, obviously they’re a very good team. They’re one of the best offensive teams in the country would be my guess. We have to respect that. How can we neutralize it?

“You also have to look at the other side of it,” Carvel added. “Where are we better than them? We need to really make sure that part of our game is effective. They’re the No. 1 team in the country but we’ll look toward this week the same as we would for any other team.” 

Carvel’s guess that Boston College (21-5-1) is one of the best offensive teams in the country was an accurate one. 

The Eagles enter Friday scoring 4.26 goals per game, which ranks third in the country. It helps BC that it has top tier talent on its attack, with three top 10 NHL Draft picks and another first round pick from last year’s draft on the roster. 

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Cutter Gauthier, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers with the fifth pick of the 2022 draft, sits second in the country in goals with 23 tallies in 27 games. 

Will Smith — who became the highest drafted player the Eagles have ever had when he was selected fourth overall by the San Jose Sharks this past draft — has lived up to the hype, as he’s fifth in the country in points with 41 (16 goals, 25 assists). Amherst’s Ryan Leonard, who was drafted eighth overall to the Washington Capitals this past year, is 14th in the country in points with 36 (16 goals, 20 assists). 

Rangers first round pick Gage Perreault, drafted 23rd this past year, leads the nation in points with 45, scoring 13 goals and dishing 32 assists. All that firepower is why the Eagles have scored three or more goals in its last 17 games. 

All the while the Boston College defense is surrendering just 2.22 goals per game, which ranks fourth in the country. Eagles freshman goalie Jacob Fowler has a .924 save percentage on the season, ranking eighth in the nation. 

While BC has a potent offense, it’ll face a UMass team that has been stifling the opposition of late. 

The Minutemen (16-7-3) have surrendered less than two goals in each of their last five games, going 4-1 in that stretch. 

That starts with the play of the defensemen — led by Scott Morrow and Ryan Ufko, UMass’ candidates for the 2024 Hobey Baker Award — as well as the play of freshman goalie Michael Hrabal, who is coming into his own these past few weeks. 

“He’s 18 years old at a very good level of hockey,” Carvel said of Hrabel. “What we expected was that eventually he’d figure things out and find his comfort zone. It sure looks like that’s where he’s at. He’s given up five goals in the last five games. We didn’t overnight become an unbelievable defensive team. We’re trying to become one. The bigger factor is he’s really finding his game. That’s why I’m excited to play BC. We’re starting to think we’re a good defensive team. We’ll find out this weekend if we are.” 

The sign of a good team is how it plays in the crucial moments and UMass has been playing its best hockey in the third period. 

The Minutemen have outscored opponents 4-0 in the third period over their last five games. Nick VanTassell scored the game-winning goal against Northeastern while Dans Locmelis and Jack Musa tallied in the third to beat UConn last Friday. 

The play in the third period is a sign to Carvel that his team is trending in the right direction. 

“We’re growing as a team,” Carvel said. “Thirteen new players [to start the season]. I’ve said this recently that at the beginning of the year we were ahead of BU 3-1 in the third period. They tied it and we lost in overtime. I don’t think that would happen anymore. That happened in the fourth week of the year when we had 13 new players. That doesn’t happen when you’re four weeks from the end of the season. We’re doing our job teaching these kids how to play the game. We’ve become a very good third-period team. There’s reasons for that.”

UMass is playing its best hockey of the season since returning from winter break. This weekend’s slate with the Eagles will no doubt offer a look at just how improved the Minutemen are. 

“Since Christmas we’ve been a really good team,” Carvel said. “I can’t believe we’ve lost any games. I think we’ve played well enough to win. Finally [last] weekend we won both of them. The ship is going in the right direction. This past week helped to pick up a little pace. Now we’re coming into stormy waters. We’ll see if the ship can keep going the right way.”