A new face has ascended to the top of the college hockey world this week and many outside of Amherst, Massachusetts are probably a little surprised.
For the first time in school history, the University of Massachusetts Minutemen are the No. 1 team in the nation. Yes, the same program that only won five games two years ago is now off to a 12-1-0 start and sitting atop the polls in the first week of December. Yes, that same team already has four wins over ranked opponents this season, including three over teams currently in the top 10.
But while many people are surprised by the Minutemen’s success, the signs were there that this team was going to have every opportunity to be special. It begins with the stellar sophomore class who carried the team at times last year as freshmen. That group is led by 2017’s No. 4 pick Cale Makar, the shifty, skilled defenseman the Colorado Avalanche would love to sign right now and insert into their lineup.
Yet it’s the guys without NHL ties who have perhaps been the most impressive for the Minutemen. It’s players like sophomore goaltender Matt Murray with his 1.99 goals against average and .929 save percentage. Or sophomore forward Mitchell Chaffee, who has 10 goals in 13 game and ranks fifth nationally in goals per game. Even veteran leaders like graduate transfer Jacob Pritchard, who has contributed big goals in big spots this year for his new team.
The Minutemen have already mastered one of the hardest things to do in sports, finding ways to win games. Three times already this season UMass has scored the game-winning or game-tying goal in the final two minutes of regulation and also has won both overtime games in which it has played. It has taken care of business in a conference where it is extremely tough to sustain a long winning streak and raced out to a 7-0-0 start in 2018.
There is still a lot of hockey to be played over the next three-plus months in Hockey East, but UMass isn’t some mirage at the top of the league standings. The Minutemen might not win the regular-season title. Northeastern or Boston College or Providence might end up catching them and restoring some semblance of order to the best college hockey conference in the country. But if UMass is celebrating its first Hockey East title in March, you can’t say you weren’t warned.
Series of the Weekend
The schedule across Hockey East rarely leaves college hockey fans with uneventful weekends, and this one is no exception. Once again the attention focuses on UMass, which begins its reign as the top team in the country with a salivating home-and-home with No. 8 Quinnipiac. The Minutemen and Bobcats tangle in Hamden, Connecticut on Friday night before returning to Amherst on Saturday to face off again.
What makes these games so intriguing is just how even these teams are across so many national metrics. UMass is second in goals per game with 4.08 and Quinnipiac is right behind it in fifth at 3.87. The Bobcats are third in the country by allowing just 1.8 goals per game, but the Minutemen are fifth at an even two per contest. The parity continues on the power play – UMass second with 32.1 percent success rate and Quinnipiac eighth at 26.9 – and the penalty kill – Bobcats are fourth at 87.9 percent kill rate and Minutemen are seventh at 87.7 percent.
- Boston College
- New Hampshire
- Boston University
stats from umassathletics.com and hockeyeastonline.com