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Keeping Score: The sleeping giant awakens

  • Cale Makar and UMass are giving area hockey fans something to cheer about. Recorder file photo


Friday, March 02, 2018

Good morning!

Three head coaches and many, many losing seasons ago, commissioner Joe Bertagna characterized the enigmatic UMass hockey program as a sleeping giant in Hockey East.

On Thursday night at the Mullins Center, that sleeping giant awoke and overcame a two-goal deficit to beat the UVM Catamounts, 3-2, with three seconds left in sudden death overtime.

The crowd behind the UMass bench and a battalion of noisy students across the ice virtually willed replay officials into overruling referee Scott Hansen’s initial “no goal” call of Philip Lagunov’s shot that crossed the goal line moments before he crashed into the net.

As officials huddled behind the glass and looked at the overhead replay, the students clamored, waved their arms and chanted “Goal! Goal! Goal!”

“He’s either gonna come out and wave it off or point to center ice for the faceoff,” said Greenfield’s Bob Weiss.

The building became quiet when Hansen put on his helmet, stepped on the ice and pointed for a center ice faceoff.

Goal.

Bedlam ensued. The building was a cacophony of noise and celebration; the Minutemen sprinted to their net and mobbed goalie Matt Murray.

The greatest hockey win in Mullins Center history was accomplished in a way that hinted there are more to come.

The three stars of the game were Lagunov for potting the game-winner, Cale Makar for his goal and assist, and hometown boy John Leonard for a goal and setting up the game-winner. UMass coach Greg Carvel told WHMP’s Donnie Moorhouse afterward, “He outbattled two guys and skated past the third.”

The fourth overall pick by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2017 NHL Draft, Makar’s brilliant talent was manifested all night by his deft stickhandling, pinpoint passing and explosive speed. In the second period, UVM’s Jarrid Privitera tried taking Makar out of the game by spearing him with his stick blade in front of the Catamounts goal. 

The cheap shot knocked the wind out of Makar, who collapsed onto the ice and was helped to the bench by his teammates. The crowd — particularly the students — reacted angrily and the four on-ice officials huddled to confer. After checking the replay, the 5-foot-8, 153-pound Privitera was ejected and suspended for Friday night’s Game 2 of the best-of-three series.

The ensuing 5-minute spearing major, and 10-minute misconduct penalty, resulted in Leonard’s power-play goal in the first minute of the third period. A few minutes later the Catamounts drew another penalty when Alex Esposito shot the puck after the whistle, then drew a 10-minute misconduct for jumping up and down like a little kid on his way to the sin bin.

Desperate for the tying goal, UMass fed off of Makar’s talent. The freshman from Alberta wound up from behind his own net, cruised past two forecheckers, sidestepped one UVM defenseman and deked the other, and flipped the puck over flummoxed netminder Stefanos Lekkas to knot the score.

“I don’t know if you’ll see a nicer goal in college hockey this year,” Carvel said to Moorhouse.

Weiss said Makar’s magic ended any doubt if he’d be back in Amherst for his sophomore year. “Watch the moves he makes,” Weiss said to Charlie Olchowski. “Wishful thinking.”

Olchowski had joined us after sitting with Sam the Minuteman during the first period. “It was an honor,” he said.

The crowd’s enthusiasm underscored the importance of home-ice advantage, and the announced attendance of 2,573 reflected the athletic department’s bungled opportunity to promote and support the school’s most important sporting event in over a decade.

After the Minutemen secured home ice advantage on Feb. 27, season ticket holders were required to purchase tickets for all three quarterfinal games. “I had until Tuesday at 4 p.m. or they’d be released to the public,” said Greenfield’s Tony Worden.

He needn’t have worried whether he and his wife Jen would get into the game. According to a UMass police officer on detail, only 500 walk-up tickets were sold before the puck dropped.

It was a harsh way to treat the team’s most loyal fans, some of whom had been waiting since the Mullins Center opened in 1993 for a night like Thursday. It’s typical, however, of an athletic department that thinks that basketball is the great panacea. UMass hockey (16-17-2) will finish with more wins than the basketball team (11-19), which is as it should be because this is hockey country.

Between periods on Thursday, a smiling fan approached me on the concourse and said, “UMass hockey deserves the biggest slice of the pie because they’re the best team.”

“What’s your name? I don’t know your name,” I asked, pulling out my notebook.

“That’s good!” he said, and smiled and walked away.

Unlike previous years when UMass teams collapsed under the weight of the conference schedule, Carvel’s Minutemen have come on strong. Going into Friday night’s game, they were 5-1-2 in their last eight contests and poised to go deep in the playoffs.

A fierce winter storm was raging outside the Mullins Center Friday night, appropriate weather for an inspired team looking to put UMass-Amherst on the national landscape.

The sleeping giant has awakened, and he has scores to settle.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached by email at sports@recorder.com.