Make no mistake: we have been awfully harsh on our beloved hockey team in this space and, moreover, on our Twitter feed in the past month-plus. Really harsh. I think words such as “abortion” and “trainwreck” have been bandied about. In our defense, we’ve watched our team flounder about during possibly the most crucial stretch of its season, barely scratching out a couple of Hockey East points while getting its lunch handed to it on at least a bi-weekly basis. Granted, the runaway success of the hoops team has done wonders for our mental sanity as the diehard fans we are, but it’s still just been a tough season to watch. The biggest disappointment has not been that the team is merely underperforming – it’s been downright lackadaisical. As bad as the UNH camo game would have been had it actually happened and wasn’t just a horrible LSD-induced bad trip, the Vermont game was the absolute nadir of suck. The UNH game was a result of a goalie who wasn’t ready for the stage being pushed onto it like a sacrificial lamb wearing a shitty digital camo jersey, digging an impossible hole from which to climb, against a Wildcats team that needed a win badly. But to have a 2-0 loss, with your top goalie in net against a freshman and a far less talented foe, and to just completely mail in 60 minutes of haphazard, disinterested slop hockey, generating nothing resembling a constant attack, was so disheartening that I almost reconsidered Matt and I’s planned trip to South Bend. Why spend the time and money to see this team now (after all, we’ll be back in two years and we might not suck then! Right?), and miss out on a trip to Springfield (and Smith’s) to see a sellout crowd against the BYU Fightin’ Jimmers? Even some of our Twitter followers were teasing us for our choice. Why spend my birthday watching bad hockey?
Alas, with the vacation time already booked, we bit the bullet and drove 16 hours to the home of the Fighting Irish, with stops in Chicago and Munster, IN (I’ll explain) along the way. And not only did we have an absolute blast every step of the way, we also saw a UMass hockey team go toe-to-toe with one of the best in the nation for two straight nights, succumbing late in the first game, and grinding out an actual win in the second. In both games, so many aspects of the game were just plain better than we’d been witnessing, and we saw a lot more of the team that tied BC two nights (only getting credit for one, naturally) and a lot less of whatever the fuck the Vermont game was. Is there still lots of work to be done? Sure. Is this team going to magically turn it on in the second half and roll to a home ice position? Nah. Is Ben Gallacher a heart attack waiting to happen every time he touches the puck? Look, we’ve made our enemies in the past (ahem, Freddie Riley, cough, Mike Marcou) with our past criticism, and I know I sort of instituted a pseudo-ban on ganging up on individual players. We’re trying reaaaaaaaaaaaal hard not to let that happen, but then again both of those players ended up putting together not-the-worst senior seasons, so if that’s what it takes to get him to turn it around, then yes, Gallacher is the worst. (Sorry bud. You’ll thank us later if the past is any indication.)
We still think, warts and all, this team has potential. True, the performance from the GPS line of Gracel-Pereira-Sheary has been below expectations, but Gracel had himself a fine weekend and the other two looked more like their last-season equivalents again. We’ve had all kinds of baseless and somewhat-based speculation that the seniors on the team seem to be the biggest problem, tuning out a coach who didn’t recruit them and protesting the loss of their teammates cut in the preseason. But that didn’t seem like the case this weekend at least. And we still can’t sing enough praises for the second line of Pigozzi, Power, and Iacobellis, all of whom have bought into whatever Mick is teaching and who will be the core next year to build around along (hopefully) with Frank Vatrano. Long and short of it is that UMass still has just two wins and only nine conference games left, sitting in 9th despite by far playing the most games in the conference already. But with the new format this year, a finish in the 6-8 range earns home ice in the first round, and that is a goal this team can realistically achieve with a better second half. The potential is there – we saw it in the BC games, the Michigan State games, and now against Notre Dame. If Mastalerz can stay healthy (big if!), the pieces are there for a turnaround. UMass has plenty of time before they return to conference play, and these nonconference foes coming up offer a chance to build momentum for that.
Of course, it could just be a flash in the pan. We could have just seen the last of this team being competitive in 2013-2014, and maybe they’ll continue the disastrous path to 11th place and a first-round sweep by a middling team like, say, Vermont. But the journey, as always, remains worth it. Stay tuned for part 2 with the pictures and whatnot tomorrow night.