UMass takes aim at its first Hockey East tournament title

The Minutemen swept New Hampshire in the Hockey East quarterfinals.

UMass New Hampshire NCAA Hockey
UMass already has the top seed locked up for the NCAA tournament. –The Associated Press

It’s been a year of firsts for UMass hockey this season. A strong start saw the Minutemen vault to the No. 1 ranking in the country in the first week in December, a first in school history. For the remainder of the season, they would bounce back and forth at No. 1 or No. 2, alternating with St. Cloud State as the top team in Division 1.

Along the way, UMass swept home-and-home series from traditional powers Boston College and Boston University, among others, en route to capturing its first Hockey East regular-season title. And after sweeping New Hampshire in the conference quarterfinals, the Minutemen have locked up a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.

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But there is another first the program would like to accomplish before the pairings are announced Sunday morning. That would be winning the conference tournament this weekend. UMass (28-8-0) is set to play BC again Friday night at TD Garden. It’s the first time the Minutemen have reached the Hockey East semifinals since 2007.

“We’ll go into the Garden as the team without any experience playing there, but we’ve taken on challenges all year,’’ said UMass coach Greg Carvel. “Nothing seems to faze these kids.

“We’re all excited about it. We’ve earned this opportunity which this program hasn’t had in 12 years. We all have a common goal in this group, and that common goal is to bring respectability to this program, not just in our league, but nationally.’’

Reaching the final for the first time since a triple-overtime loss to Maine in 2004 would further solidify that accomplishment. The loss to the Black Bears 15 years ago marked UMass’s only trip to the conference championship game.

“We go into this weekend as the No. 1 team, and we’re going in there dead-set to win this thing,’’ said Carvel. “I’ve been asked, ‘Do you feel pressure?’ I don’t feel pressure.

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“We’re very excited to see how well we can play, and this group knows that if they come and play hard and play the right way, they usually win games.

Getting to the championship game would mean defeating BC for the third time this season. That the Eagles are still playing is somewhat of a surprise. They managed to knock off second-place Providence last weekend in the quarterfinals, despite missing three of their top nine forwards.

BC and UMass played on consecutive nights in February, with UMass winning at home, 4-3, and at Chestnut Hill the next night, 4-2.

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“We battled very well with them,’’ said BC coach Jerry York. “I thought both games were hotly contested. Either one of us could’ve won.’’

BC (13-21-3) struggled for much of the season, finishing in the bottom half of the league standings in seventh place, but York always maintained that the Eagles’ best hockey was ahead of them.

“We’ve been so close all year,’’ said York. “I’ve always felt we had a very good hockey team here. The results haven’t shown that, but I like our club, I really do. I think if we play well, we could be a very dangerous opponent.’’

Before BC and UMass take the ice, Northeastern and Boston University will square off in the first semifinal at 4 p.m.

Northeastern (25-10-1) punched its ticket to the NCAA tournament after sweeping Maine last weekend. But there is still plenty on the line for the Huskies this weekend. A pair of victories would only improve their seeding.

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“Winning the Hockey East tournament is one of our goals,’’ said Northeastern coach Jim Madigan. “Too often we try to fast-forward and get to the national tournament, and the national tournament is important, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a step process along the way here. For us it’s the Beanpot, then it becomes the Hockey East playoffs. Our kids are psyched to be here.’’

This will be the fourth meeting between the teams this season, with Boston University taking 3 of 4 points in conference play, tying the Huskies at Matthews Arena and winning back home at Agganis Arena. Northeastern bounced back to defeat the Terriers in the first round of the Beanpot.

BU (16-17-4) finds itself in a similar position to BC. After finishing in fifth place, the Terriers entered the tournament knowing they would have to win out to reach the NCAA tournament. BU advanced to the semifinals by defeating UMass Lowell in three games last weekend. To continue that roll, they have to reverse their fortunes at TD Garden, where they dropped both the opening round and consolation games of the Beanpot.

“We haven’t had great success at the neutral sites this year,’’ said BU coach Albie O’Connell. “I think we’re playing a lot better now. Both of us play on a 200-by-90 sheet, so it’s a smaller sheet.

“We’re both used to playing at the Garden, so I think it’s exciting. They always bring a really good crowd and student section. I’m hoping that the BU faithful will come out. I know it’s an early game, but hopefully they’ll come out.’’

Over in the ECAC, Harvard (19-9-3) is in Lake Placid, N.Y., for the conference semifinals, where it will face Clarkson (24-10-2) after sweeping Dartmouth in the quarterfinals last weekend. The Crimson are on the bubble with regard to the NCAA tournament, and a pair of wins this weekend would cement a birth for them.

“We always feel when we go to Lake Placid that the big ice surface is something we enjoy playing on, because we like to play fast and use our speed and skill,’’ said Harvard coach Ted Donato. “Hopefully we’ll play our best.’’

Harvard defenseman Adam Fox was named a Hobey Baker finalist, along with UMass defenseman Cale Makar

“I’m always reluctant to really go deep into it while a guy’s still here, but I think we’re watching one of the best players that has worn our jersey,’’ said Donato. “He’s been tremendous. He makes others around him better. He’s very underrated defensively. He never really gets down. He keeps the bench positive and confident. He’s a heck of a player.’’

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