UMass hockey: Ryan Ufko’s second OT winner in as many nights sends Minutemen past Lowell

UMass players celebrate Ryan Ufko’s (6) goal during the Minutemen’s 4-3 overtime win against UMass Lowell on Saturday night at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

UMass players celebrate Ryan Ufko’s (6) goal during the Minutemen’s 4-3 overtime win against UMass Lowell on Saturday night at the Mullins Center in Amherst. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-02-2024 10:19 PM

AMHERST — With the UMass hockey team awaiting an offensive zone faceoff while on the power play in overtime, UMass Lowell elected to take a timeout to talk over its defensive strategy for the biggest moment in the game.

Minutemen defenseman Ryan Ufko had just seen the Buffalo Sabres run a 4-on-3 power play to perfection the other day, and figured now was a perfect time to give it a try. The junior grabbed head coach Greg Carvel’s white board and drew it up for his teammates to see.

After UMass gained possession of the puck on the ensuing draw, Scott Morrow had control of it at the top of the zone, where he then slid over a pass to Aydar Suniev in the right faceoff circle.

Suniev loaded up like he was going to shoot, then fired a slap pass across the middle to Ufko, who was all alone on the back side. He sent in the one-timer and give the Minutemen a 4-3 win – their second consecutive extra-frame win over the River Hawks – on Saturday night at the Mullins Center.

It was Ufko’s second goal of the night, and his second OT winner in as many days after tallying one in Lowell Friday night.

“We use the word integrity a lot in our program, so I need to open up by saying that, when Lowell called a timeout in overtime, Ryan Ufko drew up a play, and then he scored,” Carvel said. “I had nothing to do with that. Then I realized that he drew it up so he could [be the one] to score, and I thought that was awesome. It was a heck of a play.”

Prior to the goal when it was still 3-on-3, Suniev worked his way into the slot after beating his defender toward the goal. UMass Lowell’s Jak Vaarwerk had no choice but to hook Suniev to eliminate his scoring chance.

That led to UMass’ power play, and Ufko firing home yet another big-time goal for the Minutemen – his third sudden-death tally of the season.

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“I actually saw the Buffalo Sabres did it the other day,” Ufko said of the play. “I was scrolling through [social media], and I saw it. They were in overtime, and they ran that play where the defenseman passed it and they went through the back door, so I figured let’s give it a try with how Lowell was pressuring out. I figured there might be a seam there, and lucky enough it worked.”

The overtime goal wasn’t the first big one Ufko scored on Saturday. Just about midway through the third period, with UMass again on a power play, he found himself open in a few feet inside the blue line with a straight shot on River Hawks goalie (and former Minuteman) Luke Pavicich. Ufko walked in and ripped the puck through traffic and into the back of the net to tie the game at three apiece.

UMass has struggled mightily on the power play of late, so to see that one go in lifted the whole team’s spirits.

“We needed that goal so badly,” Carvel said. “Our power play has been struggling, and when they went out there, I said, ‘We’re only gonna score if [Ufko] shoots it from the point,’ because he does that pretty regularly. And it’s just one of those things that, we’ve been waiting so long to score an important power play goal, and once that win, you’re like, ‘Alright, I guess tonight is our night.’”

It didn’t feel like that at first.

Although UMass did strike first on Ryan Lautenbach’s third shorthanded goal of the season at the 8:40 mark of the opening period, the River Hawks dominated the rest of the first and the majority of the second periods.

Vaarwerk tallied twice within two minutes of each other to give UMass Lowell a 2-1 lead at the first intermission, and at one point midway through the second, the River Hawks were outshooting UMass 20-11.

Suniev added a goal to tie it up at two, but UMass Lowell came right back and took another advantage following Isac Jonsson’s power play goal with a little over eight minutes remaining. Lowell took a 3-2 lead into the final regulation frame.

The third period was all UMass, however.

The Minutemen outshot the River Hawks 12-2, and had a plethora of chances to light the lamp and win in regulation. Then Ufko tied it up, and Carvel and Co. knew they would come out on top.

“The third was a solid period, I did feel like we had the momentum,” Carvel said. “The momentum of last night’s overtime, too, I think helps. If we would’ve lost in overtime last night, we’re probably a different team in overtime tonight, but you do carry that confidence.”

The first line of Suniev, Lautenbach and Lucas Mercuri was terrific on Saturday, with the three combining for four points in the win.

“[Lautenbach] scores a huge goal, and Suniev, our second goal, very few players at this level are gonna score that goal,” Carvel said. “He’s a shooter, he’s a scorer. He works on that stuff. Obviously that line played a big, big role [tonight].”

Scott Morrow and Suniev each had two assists, Ufko added an assist, and Kenny Connors and Michael Cameron all recorded assists on Ufko (two), Suniev and Lautenbach’s goals.

At the conclusion of Saturday’s game, UMass honored its seniors, especially four-year program veterans Aaron Bohlinger and Linden Alger – who each won two Hockey East crowns and a national championship with the Minutemen.

The two shared their thoughts of what their last four years in Amherst have meant to them.

“It’s really such a special place,” Alger said. “The growth from when you’re a freshman to a senior is crazy. Once you’re a junior, you’re considered a leader here, and the older guys always show you the ropes. And then eventually, you’re in me and Aaron’s position, and you’re seniors and guys look up to you. It’s crazy how fast it went by.”

“It’s hard to describe in words,” Bohlinger added. “If you don’t live it, it doesn’t really make any sense to those who aren’t a part of it. But it’s just a really special place. My best friends are here. We’re super fortunate. And we always talk about character and the purpose of this program. It just means so much. It means something, and it’s gonna mean something long after we’re gone.”

No. 14/12 UMass (19-10-3) travels to No. 9/7 Maine next weekend to close out their regular season with two road games in Orono.