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UM downs Cats, 3-1

AMHERST — A three-game stretch in five nights and one of the ugliest losses in recent UMass hockey history provided the backdrop for the Minutemen’s annual pre-Thanksgiving Day meeting with Vermont Tuesday at the Mullins Center.

The subplot saw first-year UMass head coach John Micheletto take on the team he’d worked for over the last nine seasons. Although Micheletto downplayed the opportunity to put one over on his former employer, the Minutemen’s 3-1 victory over the Catamounts was a welcome turnaround for a team still smarting from an 8-2 home loss to UMass-Lowell 48 hours earlier.

Branden Gracel scored twice for UMass (4-5-1, 3-5-1 Hockey East), which killed a key 5-on-3 Vermont power play early in the third period with a one-goal lead. Kevin Boyle made 24 saves to earn the victory as the Minutemen went 1-1-1 through the run of three games.

“I thought it was a good win and a really good response by our guys,” said Micheletto. “Seeing people that have been friendly faces for a long time, it’s always good to catch up, but once the puck drops, it’s really hard to have any sort of sentimentality at all. You’re so wrapped up in trying to see big-picture things about your team.”

After allowing the first six goals of the game Sunday against UMass-Lowell, the Minutemen broke on top Tuesday at 5:51 of the first period. Conor Sheary sent a cross-ice pass from the left-wing boards to Conor Allen, who unloaded a slap shot from the top of the right circle. UMass’ Kevin Czepiel and a Vermont defender were camped in front, and the puck seemed to deflect off one of them past Catamounts freshman goalie Brody Hoffman (28 saves). Allen got the credit for his third goal of the season.

Vermont had a nice chance go begging at 10:09 when Kyle Reynolds threw a sharp-angled shot from deep in the right-wing corner behind Boyle, stationed at the top of the crease. Boyle reached backward with the left hand and gloved Reynolds’ shot out of the air before it could deflect behind him.

Just over a minute later, the Catamounts (2-5-2, 2-5-2 HE) got it right with their fourth line on the ice. Kyle Mountain’s initial shot was saved by Boyle, but the puck popped to Anthony DeCenzo at the top of the crease. With Boyle out of position, DeCenzo had half the open net to target and didn’t miss for his first of the year at 11:20. Anders Franzon also drew an assist for UVM.

Gracel was stopped cold by Hoffman at point-blank range out front after taking Troy Power’s feed from behind the net at 16:42. UMass ended the period killing a penalty after a too-many-men call at 18:38.

Gracel then got the second period off to a rousing start at 3:57 when he picked off a UVM clearing attempt in the high slot, advanced and hesitated slightly, then snapped the puck past Hoffman for his fourth goal.

“I found a nice pass from their team right on my stick,” chuckled Gracel. “I thought somebody might have been pressuring from behind, so I brought my stick down and just did a little snapper.”

The Minutemen kept their 2-1 lead into the third period, but were hit with a pair of penalties 27 seconds apart, when Allen lost his stick in the defensive zone and was called for interference and Joel Hanley went off for elbowing. With a minute-and-a-half of 5-on-3 time, however, Vermont managed only one shot against Boyle.

“A 5-on-3 at any point is crazy. That’s a momentum swing no matter if it’s in the first 10 minutes or the last 20,” said Micheletto. “Our guys did a nice job later on (in the penalty kill). I thought our communication was really good.”

Vermont then had to kill two penalties of its own midway through the period, and UMass added the insurance tally with 5:05 remaining. Michael Pereira and Gracel took off on a 2-on-1 break, with Pereira advancing on the right nearly behind the goal line and drawing a sliding UVM defender, then feeding the puck to Gracel angling in from the left for a easy tuckaway.

“It was huge, we needed that. The league is so tight that after a loss like (Sunday), you have to bounce right back,” said Gracel. “You have to move forward. It’s nice that we didn’t have a break and it’s good that we got right back after it.”

The teams have played each other on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving every year since 1996. UMass hosts Quinnipiac in a non-conference game Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Mullins Center.

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