Rising Barometer

It may have not been the giant leap forward for the Massachusetts hockey program, but it was another small step in the right direction.

One year after going toe-to-toe with eventual league champion New Hampshire in the Hockey East semifinal, the Minutemen faced a rematch Friday and pulled off a stirring come-from-behind victory to secure a berth in their first-ever league championship game. Saturday it took the No. 2 team in the nation 109 minutes and 27 seconds to finally derail their bid for a historic league title and trip to the NCAA tournament.

This team played two Hockey East heavyweights in two nights without blinking. In fact, they took it to Maine for significant portions of this triple-overtime marathon, outshooting them 64-61. When the game was on the line, and they played their first 20-minute overtime in the program’s history, what did they do? They outshot the Black Bears by a whopping 19-8, only to be thwarted by one of the nation’s best goaltenders.

“I was so impressed with UMass, and I can’t believe that team isn’t going to the tournament,” Maine Coach Tim Whitehead said. “I was just thoroughly impressed with how they competed.”

Watching this team compete, it’s hard to believe that the Minuteman hockey program was dead in the water from 1979-1993. After joining Hockey East under Joe Mallen in 1994-95, they took their lumps for several years but gradually became competitive. Under Coach Don “Toot” Cahoon, they endured two eight-win seasons before breaking out with a 19-17-1 record last year. This year they were just a little too inconsistent to make the national tournament with an at-large bid, but they still came up one goal shy of beating two top ten teams to win the league playoffs and earn an autobid.

“We certainly know that it’s something new in the annals of UMass hockey,” Cahoon said of competing in the league championship game. “It’s something we’ll use as a barometer. We want to get back to this game and win this game. We want to grow the program, but there’s going to be some ups and downs. We’re at a point with our recruiting and our development that we can’t be certain we’ll be back in-this is too tough a league-but we’ll use this as a barometer to grow from, for sure.”

Saturday proved to be an incredible learning experience. The Minutemen were tested, and responded. With the exception of poor retaliatory penalties that negated two power plays in the third, it’s hard to fault how they played-though they did seem to wear down just a bit faster than the Black Bears.

“I thought we played really well in the first overtime, but they seemed to gain momentum in the second overtime,” Cahoon said. “They had legs, and we were really struggling at that point. Can’t imagine what it’s like in between periods, trying to get these guys to recover-all sorts of cramps, all sorts of problems, stomach ailments. It was just a matter of when someone was going to break down.

“At the end I was just thinking of just trying to fly people-to gamble, to look for that break because we didn’t have the energy to sustain a forecheck. It’s something we’ve worked on; I think we’re a highly conditioned team, but we just ran out of gas after that first overtime.”

Of course, any overtime game that goes on for this long ultimately ends up concluding with a fateful bounce or choice sooner or later.

“I honestly believe that any coach that’s being truthful will tell you that at that point in overtime with a game played with that kind of intensity that it comes down to puck luck at the end,” Cahoon said. “They handled it with more energy than I did at the end, and that’s something we’ll talk about at a later time. But I thought we expended more energy than they did through the first four periods.”

UMass and its fans are disappointed at coming so close after waiting so long for respectability and national prominence. When the pain of the triple-overtime loss subsides, however, there should be considerable pride over this team’s achievements, as they’ve raised the bar once again as program pioneers.

In leading the way, seniors Thomas Pock, Mike Warner, and Nick Kuiper will be tough acts to follow.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that the three seniors that I’ve coached and graduated this year are as good as people and as good as athletes that you come across at this level,” Cahoon said. “Not just their ability to play, but their ability to lead and to elevate the level of commitment of the people around them.”

Don’t be surprised if this program continues to elevate its level of commitment-and achievement-next season.