October 17, 2009 PRINT Bookmark and Share

One to Grow On

UMass Knocked Off BU, But There's More Work to Do

by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter

AMHERST, Mass. — They’ve been here before.

It’s October. There are seven months left in the season and Massachusetts disposed of Boston University in thrilling fashion – the Minutemen defeated the Terriers, 3-2, on a third-period goal from senior winger Will Ortiz. A last-minute, 6-on-5 stand sealed the victory for UMass.

The 8,123 watching from the Mullins Center on this chilly opening night of UMass’ Alumni Weekend are excited about the possibility of a nice, long season that ends some time in late March for their Minutemen.

For some, though, Friday night’s triumph set the season on all-too-familiar a course. A few nice wins to start the season before one tough game sends UMass into a month-long drought on its way to a seventh-place finished in Hockey East.

The Minutemen need to win games like this at the end of the season not in the season’s first few months when no one is who they’ll be when things like “PairWise” and “at-large” bid roll from people’s tongues at every mention of college hockey.

The barrier between UMass and relevance isn’t too different from the rest of college hockey’s second tier. It takes 35 good efforts to win a conference and beyond; the Minutemen normally clock in around 18 come season’s end. Mix 17 stinkers in along the way and you’ve got a typical season for the Minutemen.

Piecing that great season together is especially difficult this time around. Gone from the 2008-09 edition of the Minutemen are do-everything captain Cory Quirk and a group of seniors who left as the winningest class in program history. But as much as that corps meant to the Minutemen, it, in a way, illustrated the difficulties of this program. They were great sometimes, and sometimes you forgot they were even playing.

Current Minutemen look back on that group fondly, but hope to make fans and those involved with the program quickly forget what they’ve lost.

Led by dynamo winger James Marcou and one of the nation’s best defenseman Justin Braun, the Minutemen have skated to victories in each of their two games thus far; each coming in different fashion – thumping Rensselaer, 5-2, last Thursday night and doing just enough to win against the Terriers in their Hockey East opener.

Aspects of UMass’ game appear different than a year ago – namely the confidence of junior goaltender Paul Dainton who made 39 saves on Friday. At this point last year, solid goaltending was the norm at the Mullins Center; then-junior Dan Meyers began the year with strong outings against North Dakota and New Hampshire before falling apart against Providence on Oct. 30.

In years past, the Minutemen have recognized the opportunity the season represented. The talent improves every year, but the results have remained the same. Wins like Friday’s over the defending national champion boosted the confidence of fans before losses to beatable opponents put UMass right back in its place. Similarly, players have great games only to struggle the next.

It seems different this year. Not because of the results – it’s been two games, after all. The stuff no one talks about is a strength of this team. They win big faceoffs – sophomore Casey Wellman and senior captain Brett Watson combined for three defensive-zone wins in the final minute of the game with Terriers – and stick to plans that Cahoon and his staff designed.

“It came down to a minute and a half left, they pulled their goalie and it came down to discipline,” Ortiz said. “We’re going about it day-by-day. We’re not looking ahead. We’re not concentrating on the rankings. We’re not doing any of that. We’re just worrying about ourselves. Everyday getting better – everybody, every player, every coach just getting better.”

They’ve said this before, too.

The fact that its Ortiz saying it, though, means it just might mean something this time. After a strong freshman year, Ortiz has struggled to become a dependable player for Cahoon.

That’s in the past, though. Just like Friday’s win.

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