UMass hockey returns to action against Merrimack, Maine this weekend

Aydar Suniev (16) and the UMass hockey team get back to action this weekend with games against Merrimack and Maine.

Aydar Suniev (16) and the UMass hockey team get back to action this weekend with games against Merrimack and Maine. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

By THOMAS JOHNSTON

Staff Writer

Published: 02-01-2024 6:01 PM

After a week off to rest and recharge, the UMass hockey team is back on the ice this weekend. 

It comes with a twist, however.

Unlike most weekends in Hockey East where UMass will play a home-and-home series with one opponent, the Minutemen will be preparing for two different teams this weekend. 

UMass heads to North Andover on Friday to face Merrimack at 7 p.m. Rather than face the Warriors again on Saturday in Amherst, it’ll be Maine making the trip down to the Mullins Center, with puck drop set for 7 p.m. 

It’s just the second time this season the Minutemen are preparing for two opponents in a two-day span, having played Cornell and Clarkson on back-to-back days at the Adirondack Winter Invitational in December. 

“It takes me back to my ECAC days where you’d play two different opponents every weekend,” UMass coach Greg Carvel said. “It was always about only thinking about Saturday’s opponent once Friday night is over. That’s how we’ll deal with it with our guys. At this point in the year, our pre scout is more about us doing what we need to do as opposed to what the opponent is going to do. We won’t really talk or think about Maine until Merrimack is over.”

It wasn’t just the week off that has the Minutemen (13-6-3) fresh and rested heading into the weekend. Since returning from a three-week winter break in December, UMass played twice in the Adirondack Winter Invitational before playing just four games in the month of January. 

That time off has allowed the Minutemen get healthy before a critical February in which UMass has eight games on its schedule. 

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“It’s a way to manage our players and our energy,” Carvel said. “We’ve had a light January. That leads to a heavy February. We tried to give the guys as much time off as possible while still keeping their edge. We should be pretty healthy and energized for this weekend.”

The Minutemen have plenty of familiarity with Merrimack (10-14-1), having played the Warriors in a home-and-home just last month. UMass won the game in Amherst, 4-3, but fell at Merrimack, 4-1. 

Since their win over the Minutemen on Jan. 13, the Warriors have dropped four straight games. It’s been an inability to keep the puck out of their net, having surrendered six goals in each game against Boston College before giving up nine goals in two games against Northeastern. 

Having seen Merrimack recently, Carvel said he expects his guys to be ready to go on Friday. 

“I think our guys will be a little more prepared,” Carvel said. “A lot of our new guys haven’t played in that building. Watching that game over it was a pretty close game. I think we can be better. We won a road game in Northeastern and it’s hard to win a road game in this league. We’d like to build some momentum and if we can pull one off at Merrimack, it would add to the momentum we’re building.” 

While Saturday’s game against Maine will be the first time UMass is seeing the Black Bears, it shouldn’t take the Minutemen long to get a feel for what Maine is hoping to execute. 

After all, the Black Bears are led by Ben Barr, who joined Carvel at UMass in 2016 and spent five years on the Minutemen bench before taking the Maine job. As you’d expect with their overlap, Carvel said he saw a lot of familiar things when he turned on the Black Bears’ film. 

“I watched their last game [Monday] and said ‘oh wow, wonder where Benny got that? I’ve seen that before,’” Carvel said. “With complete respect to Maine — they’re one of the top teams in the country — I was excited to pre-scout them just to see what they were doing well. They play hard, they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. I do see a lot of the checking systems we installed.

“I learned a lot from Benny,” Carvel added. “Probably as much from him as I have from any other coach I’ve worked with. I’m guessing he’s picked up a couple things, too.” 

Like what Carvel has been able to do at UMass — turning a dormant program into a national champion — Barr has turned Maine into a top 10 team in the country. 

Inheriting a team that went 3-11-2 in 2020-21, Barr’s Black Bears went 7-22-4 in his first season and improved to 15-16-5 last winter. Maine has made the jump this year, as they sit 16-4-2 and are ranked No. 5 in the country in PairWise. 

What’s led to the turnaround? Good coaching, as well as talent on the roster. Freshman Bradly Nadeau, who was a first round pick by the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2023 draft, has scored 14 goals and dished 17 assists in 22 games thus far. His brother, Josh Nadeau, leads the Black Bears with 12 points and 20 assists. Both are ranked in the top 20 in the country in points and top 10 in the country in points-per-game. 

It’s not all that dissimilar to UMass’ turnaround, when the Minutemen got Cale Makar to Amherst and capitalized when that type of talent arrived on campus. 

“[Barr] did something we did here which is getting a first round pick and making the most of it,” Carvel said. “When I talk to Ben I’m like ‘what the hell are you doing up there?’ He said the Nadeaus are just really good, our goalie is solid and the rest of the guys play hard. That’s what I expect from Ben’s teams, that they’re going to compete hard. I’ve watched a bit of them and they don't beat themselves. They play right, they make the right decisions and they get some saves. Usually that’s enough to win hockey games.” 

As is the case when you hit the home stretch of the season, young players now have enough experience under their belts to be called upon to step up. 

Freshman Nick VanTassell, who started the season out of the lineup but has turned it on of late, scored the game winner against Northeastern last week. Along with Jack Musa, Dans Locmelis, Aydar Suniev and Cam O’Neill, UMass’ freshmen forwards are providing a spark and depth to its attack. 

“It’s great for me to feel like I can put more guys on the ice that can give us offense,” Carvel said. “For years we had the automatics. John Leonard was going to score, Bobby Trivigno was going to score. We don’t have automatics this year but we have a deep group. That’s what I always hope to get to. It’s great to have the Hobey Baker talents but you don’t want to have to wait on one guy to score. Our depth is good up front. We don’t have any seniors. We should be really deep offensively next year.”