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Hockey East Weekend Preview: UMass Taking Steps Forward

UMass freshman forward Patrick Lee had a goal in Sunday's 4-1 win over Merrimack.
UMass freshman forward Patrick Lee had a goal in Sunday's 4-1 win over Merrimack.
Matt Dewkett

It's a relatively light schedule in Hockey East this weekend with Northeastern off and Boston College and Boston University playing solo games in preparation for Monday's 63rd annual Beanpot Tournament at the TD Garden.

Speaking of the Terriers, the scarlet and white will host a very different UMass squad than the one it hammered on opening night. Jack Eichel had two goals and two assists back on Oct. 10 as BU exploded for a six-goal third period en route to an 8-1 win at the Mullins Center.

Whether or not UMass is ready to pull an upset Friday night at Agganis Arena is debatable at best, but it will be a much improved team than the one Eichel and company saw back in October.

John Micheletto's team is centered around some of its youthful talent and that was on display last weekend as the Minutemen took three of four points from a Merrimack team that came into the weekend looking to be the better team on paper. Freshmen and sophomores accounted for 18 of the team's 21 points on the weekend and rookies tallied all four goals in Sunday's 4-1 win.

Sophomores Frank Vatrano, Ray Pigozzi, Steven Iacobellis and freshmen Dennis Kravchenko and Patrick Lee have been offensive catalysts up front all season.

However, it's a freshman blue liner that joined the team midseason that has potentially been the spark behind the vast improvement. Anaheim Ducks prospect Brandon Montour missed the first half due to an NCAA Clearinghouse issue, but since joining the team in December, the Minutemen are 4-5-1. That's quite a difference considering UMass went 4-11-0 before Montour's arrival.

"For the better portion of the second half of the year since returning from the break we've been pretty good on most nights," said Micheletto.

Montour, the 2013-14 USHL Player of the Year with the Waterloo Black Hawks, is known for his offensive ability from the point and his knack for making plays with the puck on his stick. He's helped tremendously in UMass' breakout and the team's puck possession statistics.

"He's good at the zone exit. He gives us an element back there of a guy who can make a pass or do it with his feet. We knew he was coming at the break. Everybody was excited for him to come. We can now move forward at a little faster pace than we did at the first half of the year," explained Micheletto.

Last weekend Montour had 12 shots on goal, a goal and two assists while going +2. Although just one of his assists was on the man advantage, his addition to the lineup has allowed for more balance on the team's two power play units.

"It's nice because it gives us a lot of balance. You look at the [Shane] Walsh and Kravchenko unit," stated Micheletto. "They've got a lot of buzz going right now. What it does is it just allows you to slot guys more appropriately."

UMass' wins with Montour include Merrimack, UNH, Maine and Air Force, certainly not the same caliber of teams that it will face Friday night on Comm Ave. However, Micheletto is certainly confident the team is starting to gain some mojo and confidence as it pulls together some wins.

"It just continues a string for us. We're trying to build all year. It's never as fast as you want it. We knew we were going to have some ups and downs. You're seeing that our ups are more consistent and our downs are fewer and further between," said Micheletto.

"Today was just another step forward for us to continue to be a better version of what we were one month ago or two months ago," added Micheletto after his team's win Sunday against Merrimack.

"There's a lot more happiness in the locker room," Kravchenko conquered.

Merrimack, Lowell limp in to weekend rivalry series

Just a few weeks ago this weekend series pitting the two former Division II rivals was shaping up to be a key series in the Hockey East race, but last weekend put a damper on the hype. UMass Lowell was swept by Providence to send the River Hawks reeling to a fourth loss in five games. Merrimack blew a third period lead on Friday and only was able to manage one point against last place UMass.

Nevertheless, this weekend's series should prove to be pivotal in each team's claim as a contender in Hockey East -- whether it is for the regular season title for UML or for a possible bye or home ice in the first round for the Warriors.

Merrimack will look to capitalize on a Lowell defense that has struggled the last three games, all losses. Norm Bazin's team had given up just 18 goals through its first 11 games, but gave up 15 over the last three.

One thing that surprised this writer and others in last weekend's two losses was how easily Providence was able to generate scoring chances and how easily some of the goals came about for the Friars. Merrimack's speedy Brett Seney and bigger bodies like Hampus Gustafsson and Brian Christie will look to win the possession battle against Lowell this weekend.

Goaltending is another category that has to favor Merrimack, something surely to bring a smile to Mark Dennehy's face after a lost weekend.

Surging Black Bears look to continue momentum

Don't look now, but the University of Maine is 7-3-0 since a tough overtime loss at UMass Lowell on Dec. 6. That loss in the extra session at the Tsongas Center was one of the better games Maine played in the first half and could possibly have been a springboard for better things to come.

Devin Shore is starting to play like the All-American he is and his new linemates were the beneficiaries. Since being flanked by Nolan Vesey on the left wing and Steven Swavely on the right wing, Shore's Black Bears are 3-0, including an upset win over BC.

The trio have scored eight of the team's 14 goals and have certainly jumpstarted the resurgence. Sophomores Cam Brown and Blaine Byron have played well with freshman Liam Pecararo, who has a three-game scoring streak.

Redshirt sophomore goaltender Matt Morris has two shutouts in his last three starts, including last Saturday's 4-0 win at UNH's Whittemore Center, what has historically been a house of horror for the Black Bears.

Maine takes on UConn, one of two teams it is tied for eighth place with, in a weekend home-and-home series. Red Gendron's team hosts the Huskies on Friday night at Alfond Arena before the series moves to the XL Center in Hartford on Sunday.

Mike Cavanaugh's team practiced on Thursday at Bowdoin College, the head coach's alma mater. Unfortunately for UConn, the team will be without freshman defenseman Johnny Austin, who is out a couple of weeks with a broken finger, according to Hartford Courant beat writer Mike Anthony.

Wildcats, Irish look for redemption

New Hampshire and Notre Dame meet for a two-game series in South Bend this weekend with both teams looking to bounce back from winless weekends last time out. UNH was swept by archrival Maine while Notre Dame was handed two losses at Northeastern's Matthews Arena.

The losses for Jeff Jackson's team might have been more gut wrenching. Each night the game winner was scored in the third period and slashing calls were at the center of controversy. A missed slashing call on Northeastern led the Huskies' game winner Friday. On Saturday a slashing infraction whistled against Notre Dame defenseman and leading scorer Robbie Russo resulted in a two-game ban for the New York Islanders prospect.

Demko vs. Gillies: Round 2

Ross Mauermann's first goal of the year was the difference when these two teams met on Nov. 29. Expect another low scoring game Friday night at BC's Conte Forum as the past two goaltenders for the U.S. at the World Juniors go head-to-head.

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Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.