College hockey: The Mass Attack continues

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College hockey: The Mass Attack continues

By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com

On Wednesday night, UMass lost to Bentley, 4-1, in the UConn Toyota Classic. Give credit to the Minutemen that this game is considered an upset.

After being annually eclipsed by the big dogs in Hockey East -- BU, BC, UNH, Vermont, Maine -- UMass is stepping up as a force to be reckoned with. But the Minutement aren't content to compete only within the conference. On the national scene, just No. 5 Boston College and No. 12 UMass Lowell outrank the currently 15th-rated Minutemen among Hockey East teams.

This isn't UMass' first taste of hockey success. Massachusetts reached the Hockey East semifinals in 2003, the finals in 2004, and won a game in the NCAA tournament in 2007. But what this year's 11-6-0 record represents is the continued progress of an oft-overshadowed Hockey East program.

Doubters, and there are many, wait for the bottom to drop out. The Minutemen have come out of the gate quickly before, but usually suffer a post-holiday fadeout. When they went on a three game skid between Nov. 28 and Dec. 5, detractors assumed it was simply the same old story. So a Dec. 12 match up against Merrimack consequently became a must-win situation.

And win they did. Maybe proving the pessimists wrong helped to keep that fire roaring. Whatever the motivation, senior Will Ortiz embodied the chip on their collective shoulders, playing with purpose and scoring two goals. Sophomores Casey Wellman and T.J. Snyer were similarly inspired as both fought to find the back of the net. That game was meant to make a statement: Don't count out the Minutemen just yet.

They scored with the man advantage and they scored shorthanded. They were determined not to hit the winter break under the expectations of inevitable failure.

Such dogged resolution is what sets this UMass squad apart from those that have come before it.

We have good guys here, and good senior leaders who understand the game, fourth-year defenseman Martin Nolet said. Were pretty much all set that way."

This maturity and vision can be seen in an improved offense. After finishing 26th in the country last season with 2.87 goals per game, scoring has risen to a fifth-best 3.53. Junior forward James Marcou has a Division I-best tie 30 points on 5 goals and an astounding 25 assists.

Receiving plenty of Marcou's passes is Wellman, the nation's number two goal-scorer. He was the one who ignited The Mass Attack when facing a 3-1 deficit against No. 18 Union in the first round of the UConn Classic on Dec. 23.

"We weren't too happy with the first two periods. They out-battled us, and they outshot us," Wellman said. "The second intermission we came back and discussed what we had to do, and we executed it.

Wellmans first goal set that tempo. His second, at 15:21, sparked the comeback

So what about wednesday nights loss to Bentley? The final score doesnt tell the story. The teams entered the third period tied 1-1, and to say the Minutement outplayed the Falcons would be an understatement; they had a 43-16 edge in shots on goal.

But even a good team can outperform an opponent and lose. The important point to keep in mind is that UMass is indeed a good team.

The national ranking will likely suffer because of the loss, and the schedule doesn't get any easier: A matchup with defending national champion (though currently struggling) Boston University on Saturday, followed by a visit to Hockey East leader UNH next week.

Just dont wait for that fadeout. Whether people believe in The Mass Attack or not, its coming. And every season its a little more dangerous.

OFFSEASON

Celtics "emerged as a front-runner" for Al Horford

Celtics "emerged as a front-runner" for Al Horford

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics are poised to do the seemingly unthinkable: acquire an elite free agent in their prime. 

The Celtics are meeting with four-time all-star Al Horford tonight and as one league executive told CSNNE.com, Boston has emerged as a front-runner for his services after the Atlanta Hawks came to terms on a three-year, $70.5 million deal with Dwight Howard. 

And the Celtics will come armed with a four-year, $113 million max-salary offer for the 30-year-old Horford as well.   

In addition to the Celtics, Horford is also reportedly considering signing with the Houston Rockets.

Acquiring Horford would bolster the Celtics’ franchise on multiple levels. For starters, he would provide an upgrade roster-wise to a team whose progress has leveled out the last couple of seasons with first-round playoff exits.

Adding Horford greatly enhances the Celtics’ chances at making a playoff run that extends beyond just the first round. Adding Horford also provides the first real tangible sign that the days of Boston being perceived as no man’s land when it comes to free agents are in the past.

In addition, Horford’s leadership on the floor and inside the locker room can only strengthen a culture that’s deeply rooted in accountability.

But as the Celtics approach their recruitment of Horford with cautious optimism, they know all too well that they can’t afford to take anything involved in wooing him for granted.

While the Rockets may appear to be a team that Boston doesn’t have to worry too much about when it comes to Horford, there is one wild card franchise out there: Oklahoma City.

They’re the odds-on favorite to re-sign Kevin Durant, and adding a player like Horford to the roster could only strengthen their chances of keeping him long-term.

Oklahoma City has explored possible trade opportunities centered around Enes Kanter, which could go far in freeing up space to pursue Horford.

And as one of the six teams that Durant will meet with this weekend, the Celtics are well aware of the minefield that awaits them in trying to secure Horford as well as their top target, Durant.

The fact that Boston is on the short list for the top two free agents out there (Durant and Horford), speaks volumes as to how far this franchise has come from a perception standpoint in the eyes of the league’s best players.

Both Horford and Durant have talked in glowing terms about the Celtics franchise, head coach Brad Stevens and the players.

And the Celtics have made no secret about wanting both to eventually become Celtics, something that now stands as a legit possibility with Boston well in the mix for both players.

A. Sherrod Blakely can be followed on Twitter: @SherrodbCSN

Bruins make official free agent signings of Liles, Nash, Khudobin

Bruins make official free agent signings of Liles, Nash, Khudobin

The Bruins made a number of signings official on the first day of NHL free agency on Friday along with the big prize in hard-hitting, productive center David Backes.

Backup goaltender Anton Khudobin signed a two-year deal worth $1.2 million per season to return as a goaltending tandem with Tuukka Rask as they were back in a highly successful 2012-13 NHL season.

Hustling, grinding fourth line forward Riley Nash was signed to a two-year, $1.8 million contract with the Bruins as well, and had nine goals and 22 points in 64 games for the Carolina Hurricanes last season in an energy forward role. In his five-year NHL career, Nash has played in 242 games, amassing 31 goals and 50 assists for 81 points with 69 penalty minutes, including a career-high 10 goals a couple of years ago with the Hurricanes.

The 36-year-old John-Michael Liles signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the Bruins after arriving from Carolina at the NHL trade deadline last spring. Liles appeared in 17 games and notched six assists along with a minus-6 rating for the Bruins in 2015-16 after being acquired for Anthony Camara, a 2016 third-round pick and a 2017 fifth-round pick on February 29, 2016. Prior to joining up with Boston, the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Liles played in all 64 games for Carolina, recording six goals and nine assists for 15 points with 16 penalty minutes.

“We went out to identify a primary target in David Backes as a center, right wing candidate. He provides depth and balance to our lineup, as did Riley Nash. And Anton Khudobin addressed an area that we seemed to have chased for a little while and possibly with Malcolm’s [Subban] injury we needed to address that for the next couple of seasons. John-Michael Liles is a player that we acquired last year that really added a lot to the mobility and the transition game and we’re excited about bringing him back,” said Bruins GM Don Sweeney. “Tim Schaller was a local boy at Providence College that we went out and identified another size, strength, left-shot, penalty kill and continued to add depth. Tyler Randell emerged last year was on our roster all year long, contributed and was a real hard-nosed player, sticks up for his teammates, was able to contribute goals, albeit not necessarily in the lineup every night, bringing balance. And Tommy Cross and the leadership qualities he brings to Providence for younger players to continue to develop.

“He found himself playing in NHL games, acquainted himself very well, just a real quality person across the board. So I think the overall philosophy of today and going into the free agent period was to address some needs and we did that. But we’ve created what I think is a real internal competition for our younger players to step up and emerge around what I think we’ve added to the core group of our players. They should be excited about this opportunity.”

Tommy Cross, Tyler Randell and Tim Schaller all signed one-year, two-way deals with the Bruins for an NHL value of $600,000, but are all expected to play the bulk of the season at the AHL level barring anything unexpected. 

Joe Haggerty can be followed on Twitter: @HacksWithHaggs