January 26, 2010 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Crowd (and Coach) Pleaser

UMass' Wellman Leads the Nation in Goals

by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter

AMHERST, Mass. — For the first time all night, the Mullins Center is quiet.

With 8 seconds remaining in the second period and Massachusetts leading Vermont 1-0, the puck skips back into the UMass zone. The 6,421 in attendance ease in anticipation of the second intermission.

Sophomore Casey Wellman – the national leader in goals with 17 entering Saturday night’s game – heads back into his own zone to corral the loose puck as the UVM skaters head to the bench in favor of fresh legs.

Wellman jumps on the puck just inside his own blue line and spins up ice. His first stride burns the first layer of the Vermont trap, and he accelerates around a second hapless foe as if to say “Get out of my way, this place is too quiet.”

“When I picked the puck up, I saw their guys dash to the bench,” Wellman said. “It kind of parted the sea for me. I knew there wasn’t a lot of time left in the period and just made a quick rush.”

UMass fans grew accustomed to Wellman’s 200-foot rushes last season when he led Hockey East in freshman scoring with 11 goals and 22 assists. The sight of the lanky pivot from Brentwood, Calif., burning defender after defender, his back straighter than the shaft of a stick that seems like an extension of his hands, became a welcomed and normal occurrence to the Mullins faithful.

Another defender darts from the UVM bench as the Catamounts complete their line change, and Wellman hardly notices him as he approaches the opposite blue line.

Six seconds remain on the clock when Wellman breaks the UVM zone. In an instant, heads turn and scores of fans heading to the aisles stop where they are. Two UVM defensemen await Wellman, behind them waits goaltender Rob Madore, who, like Wellman, impressed as a freshman leading the Catamounts to the Frozen Four.

The 6 melts from the clock, and as it becomes a 5, Wellman loads his weapon. The crowd knows what comes next.

So does Madore.

“I’ve played against Wellman for the last couple of years. He’s just a phenomenal player,” Madore said in reference to his time facing Wellman first in the USHL and now in Hockey East. “He hides his shot really well. He knows the situations to put the puck on net because he’ll have a high chance of scoring. Obviously, he did that [Friday night] and he took a great shot.

“That doesn’t mean I wouldn't like to have [the shot] back,” Madore adds, smiling.

Wellman’s shot beats Madore below his glovehand and shakes the net.

It’s 2-0 UMass before 5 seconds becomes 4.

“The real turning point was the goal at the end of the second period,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon said.

“I thought we did a pretty good job defending [Wellman], but you give him a sniff, and he’s going to get it.”

The goal was Wellman’s 18th of the season. As the game wound down, Wellman added an empty-netter to seal the win for the Minutemen, who climbed into a second-place tie with Boston College thanks to the pair of points they picked up.

The following day, Vermont recovered and shut the Minutemen and their high-powered top line down in a 3-0 win.

Just 16 days ago, the Minutemen suffered a 7-2 defeat to New Hampshire that capped a three-game losing streak, which seemed like another January collapse in its earliest stages.

Since, the Minutemen pieced together a four-game winning streak before Sunday’s defeat that made home ice in the Hockey East Tournament a probability rather than a fading possibility. In those five games, Wellman scored three goals and assisted on two more. Just to his right, national point leader James Marcou draws the majority of the national attention. Still great passes don’t mean much without someone to stick them to the scoreboard.

“It’s fun to coach when you have a couple of those guys. Good coaches don’t win games; good players win games,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon said. “I remember playing against the Vermont teams when they had Martin St. Louis and Eric Perrin, I would say to myself ‘Boy, would I like be [former UVM coach] Mike Gilligan for a weekend?’ Now, I’m sure some people are saying ‘I’d like to be Toot Cahoon, right now.’”

Cahoon’s job is a little easier than it used to be. There are a number of the reasons, but the consistent, timely contributions from his gifted sophomore sniper stand out as the primary one.

Wellman doesn’t just score goals. He changes games, and, more often than not, wins them.

His first score against the Catamounts Saturday night transformed a back-and-forth struggle into UMass’ 10th Hockey East win of the season. Against Northeastern two weeks ago, his power-play goal began an onslaught that ended in an easy, 4-1 UMass win.

An overtime winner against Boston College as a freshman and a game-tying goal against UNH with 11 seconds remaining in regulation on Nov. 13 further illustrate his penchant to alter a game or win a game for the Minutemen. His five game-winning goals lead the nation.

Following the win on Saturday night, a victory he is almost solely responsible for, Wellman calmly answered questions about his heroics and his team’s play. Sitting in a maroon T-shirt and shorts, he chuckles when asked about assisting on Marcou’s first period goal – UMass goals usually start with Marcou and end with Wellman – and the differences between UMass now and UMass after that night in Durham.

The differences are pretty clear, Cahoon says after the following day’s loss. Even with the defeat to the Catamounts, the 2009-10 Minutemen just get it all of a sudden.

“Twenty men play defense. Twenty men forecheck,” he says.

Everyone does his job, and UMass wins. The Minutemen plan to keep winning. They want to stand in the center of the TD Garden ice as the class of Hockey East. At some point, though, they’ll need a big goal. A big play made by a player who recognizes the opportunity to do something more than his job.

If that’s the case, then UMass is lucky.

Casey Wellman’s done it a few times before.

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