In a down year for college hockey powers, UMass might be the nation’s best team

The Minutemen, largely lost since bringing hockey back in 1993, are Hockey East champs and after much more.

UMass Hockey East
UMass celebrates its first-ever Hockey East regular-season championship, clinched on Feb. 28 at Merrimack. –Richard T. Gagnon/UMass Athletics

In 71 years of the NCAA staging a Division 1 ice hockey national championship, 46 titles — just shy of two-thirds — belong to seven schools: Michigan (9), Denver (8), North Dakota (8), Wisconsin (6), Boston College (5), Boston University (5), and Minnesota (5). Only 21 schools have a championship, period.

A big deal in New England, the college game is still a niche sport with a clear upper crust. The ice, however, is leveling. Five of the last eight national titles went outside that bloc, with four schools (including Providence) winning their first. Recent Frozen Fours are peppered with insurgents like UMass Lowell, a long-time Hockey East also-ran that made five NCAA appearances in six years earlier this decade.

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The Commonwealth’s flagship might be weeks away from grabbing its place in that club.

“It’s a group of kids that has really come together. No one expected this out of them and they carried it all year long,” said UMass coach Greg Carvel on Feb. 28, after the Minutemen clinched the school’s first Hockey East regular-season title in 25 seasons as a member. “They’ve always risen. They’ve risen all year long. … To see these kids be rewarded for what they’ve given for the past two years is awesome.”

The final four games of the conference regular season this weekend will decide some seedings, but not No. 1. At 26-7 overall and 18-5 in the league, the Minutemen are runaway champs, one of the most dominant in the last two decades. It’s a long way from the sixth-place finish (of 12) predicted in the preseason coaches poll, the eighth of a year ago, or the 12th three years running of 2014-17.

And yet, aspirations in Amherst are far higher.

“It’s special for us, but it’s just a stepping stone,” star defenseman Cale Makar, a potential finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s best player, told College Hockey News.

Cale Makar, UMass
Defenseman Cale Makar is one of the fastest players in the college game. —Richard T. Gagnon/UMass Athletics
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Makar, fellow sophomores Mitchell Chaffee and John Leonard, and senior forward Jacob Pritchard all average better than a point per game, with Makar’s 40 (including 13 goals) second nationally among defensemen. The UMass power play is second in the nation, with the Minutemen 21-1 when they score a man up, and its defense is no slouch, either.

Sophomore goalie Matt Murray’s 1.99 goals against average was 11th-best in the nation entering Thursday’s play, with the Minuteman penalty kill tied for ninth.

UMass has been in the top three of U.S. College Hockey Online’s weekly national poll since Thanksgiving, reaching No. 1 in December after a 12-1 start, and is a shoo-in to make its second-ever appearance in the 16-team NCAA tournament. The other, in 2007, came backboned by the program’s superstar alum: Two-time Stanley Cup winning goalie Jonathan Quick.

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Quick was a sophomore when UMass upset national No. 3 Clarkson 1-0 in overtime, pushing the Minutemen within a game of the Frozen Four, but he went pro at year’s end and that 21-win season was the school’s last better-than-.500 year until this one. Within four years, UMass was back at the bottom, going 6-23-6 in 2010-11.

Coach Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon, a Marblehead native and BU alum who helped build the program’s first real positive momentum during a 12-year tenure, quit after the following season in part due to perceptions that UMass — whose calamitous upgrade to FBS football began that fall — was de-emphasizing the hockey program.

That showed in the ensuing coaching search, in which multiple job offers were reportedly rejected and which finally settled on longtime Vermont assistant John Micheletto. Viewed as a strong recruiter without high-level coaching experience, he fulfilled that promise: UMass fired him after four abysmal seasons, but it was his work that landed Makar in the summer of 2015.

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Taken No. 4 overall by Colorado in the 2017 draft, he was the jewel of a 13-man freshman class arriving in Amherst following a 5-29-2 debut season for Carvel, hired away from St. Lawrence and the first major addition by new UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford.

“Everyone I spoke to said the exact same thing,” Carvel told reporters at his introduction. “They’re like, ‘Everything is there for UMass to be successful.’”

They went 17-20-2 last season, hosting and winning a Hockey East playoff series for the first time since 2007. Five freshmen, none of them Makar, scored in the series clincher, with the Canadian scoring a coast-to-coast goal in the series opener that made top-10 lists in two countries.

This year is another leap forward, wrapped in a Carvel-created slogan — NewMass — that only amplifies these aren’t the same old Minutemen. UMass has sold out the 8,300-seat Mullins Center three times and is one of just 12 schools averaging more than 5,000 fans/game this season. The Minutemen swept home-and-homes from both BU and BC in a 16-day stretch last month, each a first in program history. Three of the wins were come-from-behind, and in the one that wasn’t, UMass squandered road leads of 1-0, 3-1 and 4-3 on the way to a 7-5 triumph.

“I came in here not knowing what was possible,” Carvel told the Globe in November. “It’s a little bit of a leap of faith. All I did was take the formula I was using at St. Lawrence … culture-building and relationship-building and getting quality kids who want to be held to a high standard.”

UMass Mullins Center
In front of nearly 8,400 fans, UMass beat BU on Feb. 8, tying a program record for wins (21) they’ve since broken. —Courtesy UMass Athletics

“I think people now have figured out we are doing it and you can win here,” Bamford told The Athletic earlier this year. “It takes special kids like Cale [Makar] and some of the other guys we have in the program. I think now student-athletes are saying, ‘That’s a great place to go to school.’”

Whether UMass can have the sustainable success that the national powers do is an open question, especially when Makar likely departs for the NHL at year’s end. (He told The Athletic his original plan was to spend two years in college, and Avalanche GM Joe Sakic has reportedly made multiple trips to watch UMass this year.) Two other sophomores, Leonard and defenseman Mario Ferraro, are also draftees. Even Carvel, an assistant in Ottawa during their 2007 Stanley Cup finals run, is popping up as a possible next head coach of the Senators.

Alas, those are the good problems to have, to be worried about after the earned spoils: A week off after Friday’s game, and a best-of-three quarterfinal series in Amherst for a spot in the Hockey East semis at TD Garden.

Winning that alone might be enough for a top seed in Manchester, N.H., come March 29-30 and the NCAAs. (UMass entered the weekend second in the PairWise formula used to pick the four, four-team NCAA regionals.)

Barring shocking conference tournament runs, the PairWise says there’ll be three Minnesota schools in that field, but not the Golden Gophers. No BC or BU, but Northeastern, Harvard and Providence. Arizona State, in its fourth year as a program and the only Div. 1 school in a 500-mile radius. Perhaps even tiny American International College, the Springfield school that’s Div. 2 in everything else and drew an announced 117 for a November home game, but this year won the Atlantic Hockey regular-season title. (UMass beat them 6-1 in January, filling AIC’s rink with more than 3,000.)

It’s been that kind of year in college hockey. One UMass and its fans hope to see through to an incomprehensible end.