BOSTON — In 18 previous visits to Walter Brown Arena, Massachusetts had come away empty-handed.
Tonight the Minutemen earned their historic first win in this venue, outplaying their hosts despite playing without two of their top three scorers. Even with Greg Mauldin out with a concussion and Chris Capraro still missing for personal reasons, UMass valiantly rose to the occasion and beat Boston University, 2-1, in front of a winter break-depleted crowd of 2,100.
With the win, UMass snapped an eight-game winless streak (0-4-4) dating back to Nov. 25 that had dropped them out of the national Top 15.
Two days after scoring five tournament goals to help the United States win its first-ever gold medal in the World Junior Championships, talented UMass winger Stephen Werner set up both of his team’s goals, while linemate Craig MacDonald added a goal and an assist. Gabe Winer stopped 22 of 23 shots but was rarely tested by the lackluster Terrier offense.
“I was disgusted with our play tonight in all three periods, in all phases of the game,” Terrier coach Jack Parker said after emerging from an unusually lengthy meeting with his team.
“Forgetting the technical aspects of it like power plays and breakouts and collecting passes, dumping it in when you should and all that, we got so embarrassingly outworked and outcompeted that there’s nothing else to say.
“You can’t win hockey games win you go up there and one team is playing at a level of intensity and drive and effort, and the other team is upset that they might have to play harder than they’re playing,” added Parker. “‘Oh, boy, UMass is going to play that hard tonight? I don’t know if I can do that.’ So UMass got a 2-1 win, but it wasn’t a 2-1 win. It was a terrific effort by them against a team that made little if any.”
Obviously, UMass coach Don Cahoon was in a much better mood than his counterpart.
“Didn’t know what to expect coming in here, coming off of a couple of tough losses to Lowell,” Cahoon said. “Obviously we went all weekend without scoring a goal, so we knew that if there was going to be any chance here, it was going to be in a low-scoring game. We had to keep defense as a top priority.
“I thought our guys did a pretty good job of gaining pretty good defensive posture both off the forecheck early in the game and later off a pretty good center-ice trap,” Cahoon said. “Scared us a little at the end, but we had a little resolve and a little puck luck for a change.”
To some degree, Cahoon shrugged off the significance of his program’s first victory at Walter Brown.
“Jack will tell you that if they kept playing us sooner or later they were going to lose to us,” Cahoon said, smiling. “I’m really delighted for our guys; it came at a really good time for our program, given our struggles that we’ve been in, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
There were very few scoring opportunities for either team for the better part of the game. At 6:20 of the first, Terrier captain Mark Mullen’s deft stickhandling led to a good backhanded shot. A minute later, BU defenseman Jekabs Redlihs — who finally managed to play his first whole game of the season after missing action due primarily to a collarbone injury — fanned on a clearing pass from his zone to tee up a great scoring chance for UMass’s Stephen Jacobs, but Terrier goalie Sean Fields made the save.
At 9:02, Massachusetts took the lead when senior blueliner Nick Kuiper wristed a shot from the right point toward the Terrier net. Fields seemed to be drifting toward his right and missed getting the glove on the puck to his left. Werner and MacDonald both collected assists on the goal.
But right off the opening faceoff in the second period, the Terriers’ top line produced a goal, just 14 seconds into the period. Mark Mullen ended up with the puck on the right-wing side, and his 15-footer beat Winer via the five-hole to tie the game at 1-1.
It looked as if the momentum was going BU’s way. The Minutemen failed to get a shot on goal in the first six minutes of the period, but it wasn’t as if the Terriers were doing much better in terms of golden opportunities.
On a power play at 14:43, Massachusetts came up with what proved to be the game-winner. With his back to the net, MacDonald redirected a Thomas Pck shot past the heavily screened goaltender.
“Down low Steve [Werner] was cycling it pretty well and gave it up to Tommy just at the top of the point — you could say that’s his comfort zone — and just shot it, and I tried to get my big body in front of it,” MacDonald said.
“Luckily, it hit off me and went in.”
“Craig’s a very intelligent player; he’s really started to come into his own during his junior year,” said Cahoon. “His intelligence allows him to play with better players. So with Werner coming back, I wanted someone who could make a play, someone who Werner would be able to count on to be able to read off of playing with, and Craig was a solid choice on that front.”
Werner had only made it back to Amherst from Finland at 11 p.m. last night.
“I was really surprised; I felt just as good as I did playing [in Finland],” Werner said “It’s a little bit less tiring playing on a smaller rink versus playing on a bigger sheet over there.”
“Just a big uplift for the team to have a player of that measure come back and a person of that quality,” Cahoon said. “He’s very humble. He didn’t come back and start telling us about the World Championship; in fact it was quite the other way around, everyone was huddled around asking him about the various players and various teams. He’s a very humble kid, a very mature kid, and a very bright kid.
“He e-mailed us while he was away saying he was having a ball, but that he couldn’t wait to get back to the team, and that he’d be there for the BU game,” Cahoon said. “It’s very significant because he never made it seem it would be a letdown to come back and play with us.”
BU showed some signs of life in the last half of the third period — particularly from freshman Kenny Roche. Minuteman freshman defenseman Mark Matheson made a great effort to dive and break up one great bid for Roche, who also had a few other good chances late in the game. In the last minute, Roche put one over the goal line, but the net had already come off its moorings and the goal was disallowed.
Massachusetts defenseman Sean Regan managed to give the Terriers three power plays with minor penalties, including two in the third, but BU’s play with the man advantage was simply abysmal all night. Parker acknowledged that the game was one of the team’s definite low points this season, especially following a pair of hard-fought ties at defending NCAA champion Minnesota.
“This team has a tendency to want things to be easy,” Parker said. “They just came off a good weekend; they’re hoping that UMass isn’t as good as Minnesota. We weren’t mentally ready to play this game, and UMass certainly was.
“Does it take me by surprise that a BU team would do that?” Parker asked. “Yeah. Does it take me by surprise that this specific BU team would do that? No. That’s why I’m so upset about it.
“This BU team can be so casual and so inept at getting ready and keeping ready and being ready to compete,” added Parker. “It was embarrassing the difference in the level of competition. That game was not won on talent or systems or power plays or penalty kills; that game was won on heart and effort.”
The Terriers (5-6-6, 2-5-2 Hockey East) will try to turn things around in another Hockey East home game against Northeastern on Friday, while the Minutemen (10-6-5, 6-4-2 Hockey East) play an exhibition at Quebec-Trois Rivieres this Saturday before playing a pair at Maine on January 16 and 17.