UMass hockey: Minutemen close out regular season with pivotal series at Maine

UMass’ Cole O’Hara retrieves the puck against Maine earlier this season at the Mullins Center.

UMass’ Cole O’Hara retrieves the puck against Maine earlier this season at the Mullins Center. UMASS ATHLETICS/CHRIS TUCCI

By THOMAS JOHNSTON

Staff Writer

Published: 03-07-2024 4:37 PM

Hockey East Tournament implications are on the line for the Massachusetts hockey team when it closes out its regular season with Maine this weekend. 

The Minutemen enter the weekend in a tie with Providence for fourth place in the league with 36 points. The Black Bears are in third with 38 points, meaning the home-and-home with Maine will have a big impact on whether UMass earns a top four spot in the postseason and a home quarterfinal game. The top five seeds earn first-round byes, and UMass is already guaranteed a top-five finish.

While there are a number of different scenarios that could earn the Minutemen home ice, UMass coach Greg Carvel said his squad’s lone focus will be to take matters into its own hands and try to get a sweep over Maine. 

Both Friday and Saturday’s games will take place in Orono, with puck drop set for 7 p.m. for both contests. 

“We’re looking at it as we need to win both games to get home ice,” Carvel said. “If we don’t, that’s on us. I’m guessing most human beings will be watching the scoreboard. We’ll talk this week about controlling our own destiny.”

Getting home ice is always important, but to Carvel, it’s more about the opponent and how UMass matches up with that opponent than where the game is being played.

“I don’t know the stats but I imagine home ice winning percentage is higher than it is on the road,” Carvel said. “You have less travel and more familiarity. I think the opponent is probably more important. Some teams match well against others. In my time here at UMass, it becomes pretty stark as to what teams we have done well against and which ones we haven’t. To me, it’s more about the opponent than the location.”

The Minutemen (19-10-3, 12-8-2 Hockey East) dropped their opening game to Maine (20-10-2, 12-9-1) last month, falling 1-0 in Amherst. 

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Black Bears goalie Albin Boija stopped all 15 shots he saw to keep UMass off the scoreboard. With Maine ranking 15th in the country in goals per game (3.31) and the Minutemen ranking 21st (3.09), there’s no guarantee another low scoring game is upcoming. 

“I thought we played pretty well against them,” Carvel said. “Their goaltender, if I remember correctly, played pretty well. I don’t know if I’ll say it’ll be lower scoring. I’m pre-scouting Maine now and they score a lot of goals up there. I don’t know how it’ll play out. I won’t be surprised if it’s a 2-1 game or a 5-4 game.” 

Stopping Maine starts with slowing down the Nadeau brothers, Josh and Bradly. Josh Nadeau — the 30th pick in the 2023 NHL draft to the Carolina Hurricanes — has 15 goals and 24 assists while Bradly Nadeau has tallied 16 goals and 23 assists on the season. 

Their 39 points apiece have them tied for 17th in the country. Neither found the scoresheet against UMass the first time around, but the Minutemen were cognizant of where the two were whenever they were on the ice. 

“We’re the road team so we can’t match very well,” Carvel said. “That line makes them go. We’ll ask our guys to be aware when they’re on the ice and to play accordingly. I don’t think there were any silver linings in that game. If we won that game we’d be sitting in a much better position than we are right now. What we learned in that game is that they’re human. They’re another Hockey East team grinding it out like the rest of us. They’re no different than the rest of us.” 

With the regular season concluding this weekend, UMass has surpassed expectations from the outside. 

Picked to finish eighth in Hockey East, the Minutemen can finish as high as third with a strong showing this weekend. While expectations weren’t as high on the outside, Carvel said this is the type of season he envisioned his squad having. 

Now playing their best down the stretch, UMass hopes it can continue on an upward trajectory in the postseason. 

“We were predicted to finish eighth or ninth and we’re fighting for third,” Carvel said. “They’re ahead of where people thought they’d be and they’re where I hoped they’d be. I think everybody knew BC and BU were going to have unique teams and the rest of us were fighting for third place. We’ve caught up to Maine who has been sitting there all year. I feel like we’re playing our best hockey at the right time of year. From goaltending to defensive play to special teams, I’m happy. I’d like to see us score a little more in 5-on-5 but we’re getting a lot of chances. Aydar Suniev had three breakaways on Friday night. You expect one of those to go in.”