The Huskies and Minutemen will meet at the Mullins Center in Amherst, Massachusetts on Friday night as two teams trending in opposite directions.
UConn (5-8-1, 2-6-1 HE) has lost their last four games, and have been outscored 17-7 during the downward spiral.
UMass (11-1, 6-0 HE), the No. 3 ranked team in the nation, is looking for their ninth straight win, a program record.
Since the Huskies joined Hockey East in 2014, the two programs haven’t historically been conference powerhouses. In fact, Hockey East’s newest team has actually fared better than their conference rivals to the north. Last year was the season since the 2013-’14 season that the Minutemen didn’t finish last in the conference standings. Since Mike Cavanaugh took over as head coach, UConn has a 5-4-1 record against the Minutemen.
However, Friday night will not be unlike any of the previous handful of meetings between the two programs.
Improbably, UMass has taken the leap from Hockey East doormat to Superpower of the sport.
Lots of the credit should be heaped upon sophomore goaltender Matt Murray. After a 9-12-2 freshman campaign, the Alberta native has a 1.74 goals against average and a .936 save percentage, first and second best in the conference respectively. Murray never had a save percentage above .920 in junior hockey. While it’s certainly possible he regresses to the mean at some point in the next few months, it’s undeniable that Murray is one of the hottest goalies in hockey right now.
UMass also sports one of the impressive defensive pairings in the country. Sophomore Cale Makar should be considered a favorite for the Hobey Baker Trophy in the spring. His six goals and 10 assists are tied for the 10th most points in the country and are second amongst all defenseman. Along with Mario Ferraro, the two defensemen supply a much greater portion of the Minutemen’s offense than is normally asked of blue-liners. Forward John Leonard has also chipped in five goals and 11 assists.
When put on the power play, UMass is also a deadly force. The Minutemen know it too, forcing their opponents to go on the penalty kill 50 times this season. With 16 total successful trips, UMass is cashing in on the extra man opportunity at a .320 percent clip. That is the third best mark in the nation and the best in Hockey East. Their next closest competitor in the conference is UNH, who converts on the power play at a .222 percent rate.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that UConn is going to be the heavy underdog on Friday. The only notable statistic that the Huskies are ranked above UMass, penalty minutes, is not a desirable one.
If UConn has a slingshot to take down Goliath, it will likely be their top-end scoring. Junior Alexander Payusov leads the Huskies offensively with nine goals and freshman Jachym Kondelik’s 11 assists are tied for the most in Hockey East. Throw in Karl El-Mir’s 11 total points and UConn has three players ranked in the top 20 in the conference in scoring.
UConn has chronically struggled to close out games late, the most recent occurrence during their 6-3 loss against Yale at the Friendship Four tournament in Belfast, Ireland. The Huskies had a 15-10 advantage in shots and a 1-0 lead after 20 minutes. Then the wheels came off and the Bulldogs scored six goals and outshot the Huskies 27-22 in the final two periods.
It’s hard to imagine a tougher rebound opportunity than the Huskies face on Friday. However, if the Huskies do somehow pull off the upset (but maybe more realistically manage a moral victory) it could give UConn some much-needed momentum going into the back-half of their schedule.
UConn and UMass will drop the puck at 7:00 p.m. at the Mullins Center. The game can be found on NESNplus.
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.