UMass hockey: Minutemen primed for top-seeded Boston College with spot in Hockey East finals on the line

UMass defender Scott Morrow (23) knocks Boston College’s Oskar Jellvik (21) into the boards in the second period earlier this season at the Mullins Center.

UMass defender Scott Morrow (23) knocks Boston College’s Oskar Jellvik (21) into the boards in the second period earlier this season at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

UMass captain Ryan Ufko (6) fires a shot against AIC earlier this season at the Mullins Center in Amherst. Ufko and the Minutemen will play top-seeded Boston College in the semifinals of the Hockey East Tournament on Friday at 4 p.m.

UMass captain Ryan Ufko (6) fires a shot against AIC earlier this season at the Mullins Center in Amherst. Ufko and the Minutemen will play top-seeded Boston College in the semifinals of the Hockey East Tournament on Friday at 4 p.m. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By THOMAS JOHNSTON

Staff Writer

Published: 03-21-2024 1:00 PM

For the third time in four years, the Massachusetts hockey team finds itself at TD Garden in Boston with a chance to capture a Hockey East championship. 

Before the Minutemen can begin thinking about lifting the title for the third time in the last four years, it has to first reach the championship game. To do that, UMass will have to get past the top team in the country and one that scored 11 goals against the Minutemen in two games this season. 

That team would be Boston College, the top seed in the Hockey East tournament which has already locked up the top overall seed in next week’s NCAA tournament. BC enters Friday’s semifinal contest on an 10-game winning streak and has won its last eight contests against UMass dating back to the 2021-22 season. 

The Minutemen will look to put a halt to the Eagles’ win streak when the two squads meet at the Garden on Friday at 4 p.m. The winner will play the winner of the other semifinal between Boston University and Maine, which meet in the nightcap at 7:30 p.m. on Friday. The title game is scheduled for Saturday back at the Garden (7:30 p.m.), and all games will be broadcast on NESN.

“We got swept by them so it definitely left a sour taste in our mouth,” UMass defenseman Ryan Ufko said of the Eagles. “To get them back, especially in playoffs right now, is really motivating. It fires us up a bit more than anyone else. I think it’s a great opportunity for us.”

An outside observer might look at UMass’ two games against Boston College this year — a 5-1 loss at Mullins Center followed by a 6-4 defeat in Chestnut Hill — and assume the Minutemen improved during their second shot against the Eagles. 

UMass coach Greg Carvel didn’t see it that way. While the Minutemen held a 4-3 lead in the third period the second time around against BC, Carvel said he felt that his squad didn’t play their best that day. 

“The game at Boston College, we carried a lead halfway through the third period but we didn’t play particularly well,” he said. “At the time it was frustrating but looking back at the game, there’s a lot of games we deserved to win and I’m not sure that was one of them.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Next 5-story building cleared to rise in downtown Amherst
‘Our hearts were shattered’: Moved by their work in Mexico soup kitchen, Northampton couple takes action
Hampshire County youth tapped to advise governor’s team
Amherst-Pelham schools look to address school absences with new plan
Northampton School Committee takes stand for budget increase during emotional meeting
Amherst regional superintendent candidate stresses inclusion, broad expertise

“I thought the Friday night game at home we played pretty well,” Carvel continued. “We gave up a couple of fluke goals that got in and the rest were power play goals. If we play hard, play in good structure 5-on-5 — I don’t think we want to get in a special teams battle with them — but if we keep it 5-on-5, I like our chances.” 

Keeping BC off the power play will be paramount to UMass’ chances of reaching the championship game. 

Boston College (29-5-1) features four NHL first round draft picks — Ryan Leonard, Will Smith, Gabe Perreault and Cutter Gauthier — who all possess elite skill on the ice. Smith leads the country in points with 58 (18 goals, 40 assists), Gauthier leads the nation in goals (32), Leonard, of Amherst, is fourth in the NCAA in goals (26) while Perreault is eighth in points (50).

Perreault has missed BC’s last five games due to an injury, but there’s a chance he suits up on Friday. No matter the case, when any group of those players are on the ice together, it presents major problems for any opponent. As you’d expect with that high end talent, the Eagles power play ranks fourth in the nation (26.9 percent). 

“They’re an elite line,” Carvel said. “You see pretty clearly what they do well. You have a plan to try to neutralize it. We will tell that to our team as clearly as possible and expect that they’ll try their best to execute. You have to respect that group when they’re on the ice and know what makes them effective. Once you give them power plays it’s really hard to limit their talent in that area.

“We should probably guard Ryan Leonard closely considering he scored five goals on us in two games,” Carvel also quipped. 

While BC is the top team in the country, UMass (20-12-3) enters the semifinals with all the confidence in the world after how it played against No. 4 Providence in last weekend’s quarterfinal round. 

The fifth-seeded Minutemen scored two goals in the opening five minutes of action and defended well the rest of the way to earn a 3-1 win, a game Carvel said was “the best 60 minutes” UMass had put forth all season. 

It was a trio of Minutemen veterans — Ryan Lautenbach, Ufko and Kenny Connors — who provided the scoring for the Minutemen, and those players with experience will once again be relied upon at the Garden on Friday. 

Lautenbach and Ufko were on the team two years ago during the Minutemen’s run to a Hockey East title, and Carvel said they’re providing the younger players with knowledge of what it’s like playing there. 

“Anything like this, if you haven’t experienced it before it might be a bit of an issue,” Carvel said. “The first time we went [to the Garden] we were the No. 1 seed and got upset. I felt like we were in Boston for too long leading up to the game. We learned to make it like any other game, do your business and get out. Our juniors and seniors played two years ago at the Garden so they’ve been talking to the rest of the team on how it’s hotter out there, you have to be hydrated, physical things like that. It’s definitely an advantage. The BC and BU kids have played numerous games there which is an advantage. Ultimately what decides games to me is who competes harder.”

At this time of year, every team is looking to play to their peak potential, something the Minutemen did against the Friars. Carvel said he’s felt all year his team was better than what their record indicated, and UMass has a chance to prove that against BC. 

“You’re always looking to raise your level of play,” Carvel said. “I do feel like this group deserved a little better than what their record was before this weekend. We had a lot of games scored away from us and we won a lot of games in overtime. We had 18 or 19 one-goal games and I felt a lot of those one-goal games should have gone our way. That was a little bit of frustration for me this year. There were a lot more positives than frustration after the season we had. I thought it was a great turnaround. We won 20 games and I feel we should have won 25 games.”

A win on Friday will also all but lock up a spot in the NCAA tournament for the Minutemen. UMass currently sits at No. 12 in the PairWise Rankings, and as of Thursday, had an 87 percent chance of reaching the tournament according to playoffstatus.com. The team can also lock up an automatic bid with two wins in Boston this weekend.

A loss against BC would drop that number to 81 percent, meaning they’d need to wait out for a potential at-large berth when brackets are released Sunday night at 6:30 p.m. While the Minutemen might be in no matter what, having that extra bit of motivation never hurts.

“We haven’t mentioned PairWise all year long,” Carvel said. “Everyone is fully aware. We’re all on social media and see what comes across. Whether we talk about it or not, I like the fact that we kind of need to win the game to secure [a spot] although it sounds like the odds are in our favor. Let’s try to take the odds out of it.”

While BC is the team to beat this year, that doesn’t mean UMass is going into the game with any less confidence, as they feel they’re good enough to beat anybody.

“There’s never a doubt in our mind that we can beat anybody we play,” senior Aaron Bohlinger said. “We know how good we are. We’ve shot ourselves in the foot a couple times this year and have had to learn lessons the hard way. It’s not fun but it does prepare you for moments like the ones coming up this weekend. There’s never a doubt in our mind whoever we play, we can beat them. We’re really looking forward to getting another shot at these guys this week.”

Ufko named Hockey East POY finalist

Hockey East announced Wednesday that BU’s Macklin Celebrini is the conference’s Player of the Year. BC’s Gauthier and UMass’ Ufko were the other finalists for the award.

Ufko has 10 goals and 16 assists on the season. The junior has come through in the clutch time and time again for UMass.

“It’s an honor,” Ufko said. “When I first got here, no it wasn’t what was going through my mind. Obviously it’s great. I remember being here, trusting the coaching staff. That was ultimately my decision for coming here. I’ve never looked back. It’s been great and I’m really looking forward to this weekend and the next couple weeks."

When making his pitch for Ufko, Carvel had nothing but high praise for his star defenseman. 

“Captain as a junior, 4.0 student and probably the best player we’ve had here since Cale Makar,” Carvel said. “He leads out team in game-winning goals. He plays 30 minutes a night. He’s an outstanding leader and outstanding human being. You all want him on your team.” 

Rounding out the awards announced Wednesday, Celebrini also snagged the Pro Ambitions Rookie of the Year while Boston College’s Greg Brown was voted Coach of the Year by his peers.