By Mary Paoletti
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.