[media-credit id=2280 align=”alignright” width=”418″][/media-credit]On Friday night, the No. 1 team in the nation is going to be marching into the Frank Perotti, Jr. Arena in Hamden.
No. 1 UMass will be squaring off against the No. 8 Quinnipiac men’s ice hockey team in a home-and-home series this weekend in the biggest test of Quinnipiac’s season.
“UMass is arguably one of the best D-cores in the country,” senior defenseman Chase Priskie said. “So I think a lot of their offense is going to start from their [defense]. They have got three big names that bring it every night.”
Each team is coming in smoking hot – six-game winning streak for Quinnipiac and a nine-game winning streak for UMass – and both are sitting in first in their respective conferences.
However, a few months ago, this game just appeared to be another out-of-conference series for each team. When the schedule originally came out in the summer, someone looking at the Dec. 7 and 8 matchups between Quinnipiac and UMass probably would not have thought anything of it.
In September, the preseason polls came out. Quinnipiac was slated at No. 7 and 8 in the ECAC Hockey coaches’ and media polls respectively. It received eight votes for the USCHO top 20 rankings. The team was being written off as a middle of the pack conference team.
UMass was looking at the same predictions. No. 6 in the preseason coaches’ poll for Hockey East and received 35 votes for the USCHO top 20. And I mean, who could blame people for predicting that? UMass has not had an over .500 record since 2006-07, only even reaching .500 once during that span.
Flash forward to now and these two teams are in a direction to finish far, far above those preseason rankings. Quinnipiac boasts a 13-2-0 overall record and a 6-2-0 ECAC Hockey record. Yet the Minutemen of UMass have an even better record, with a 12-1-0 overall record and are undefeated in conference play, going 7-0-0.
Quinnipiac created some space between itself and ECAC Hockey opponents this past weekend with a sweep of Princeton. Princeton, who now have lost five in a row, was right behind Quinnipiac in the standings, sitting in second, but given the weekend results, has now fallen to fifth.
“Just in the league in general, we approach it like it’s two points, and against a team that might be there at the end, it’s four points,” associate head coach Bill Riga said in regards to the sweep of Princeton. “It’s basically a four-point swing. I think [Princeton] is going to get it going here and put points on the board and we’re going to have to have those eight points that will be big for us at the end of the year.”
Priskie registered three goals in the series, one Friday and two Saturday. Two of those tallies came on the power play, bumping his season total to six, which is tied for the league lead in power play goals.
Priskie’s goal total is now 11, which leads the team and puts him not only first in the nation for goals by a defenseman, but tied for third out of all players.
Priskie was named ECAC Hockey Player of the Week after his performance against Princeton. It is the second week in a row Quinnipiac has garnered that honor, with last week being sophomore forward Odeen Tufto.
Speaking of Tufto, he is right behind his captain as he is tied for fifth in the nation with 10 goals. Tufto enjoyed a six-point performance this past weekend, with a goal and five assists in the two games. He leads Quinnipiac in points and is now in third in the nation in points with 24. He was named NCAA second star of the week.
Not only that, but Tufto has a ridiculous 14 points in his last five games, four goals and 10 assists. He is proving his freshman campaign was no fluke as he is on pace to break last year’s score of 41 points.
“I think [Tufto] is getting used to team’s focusing on him a little bit,” Riga said. “He’s being more creative and finding ways to get open and finding shots for himself.”
Also for Quinnipiac, freshman forward Michael Lombardi was named ECAC Hockey Rookie of the Week, the third week in a row a Quinnipiac freshman has been recognized with that achievement. He is riding a four-game point streak and added a goal and assist this weekend.
“It was kind of slow at the beginning,” Lombardi said. “But obviously you get comfortable with the level of speed and size. It’s just been easy. My linemates have made it easy for me too.”
Now let’s turn to the surprise success of UMass. UMass has been sitting at the top of Hockey East for a while and hasn’t budged. It is coming off a 7-4 victory against UConn on Friday, Nov. 30, a team Quinnipiac beat earlier in the season 4-1.
UMass also went undefeated in November, going 7-0-0 during the month and are riding that nine-game winning streak, its longest in program history and longest active streak in college hockey.
Much of that is due to the play of their top four goal scorers, the biggest name being sophomore defenseman Cale Makar. He was drafted No. 4 overall in the 2017 NHL Draft by the Colorado Avalanche and people had high expectations of him this season.
He has certainly answered those expectations and probably more, with six goals and 12 assists, tied with sophomore forward Mitchell Chaffee for the team lead in points with 18. Makar was also named Hockey East Player of the Month for October.
Chaffee himself continues to put his name all over the scoresheet, as he had two goals and two assists against UConn. He has 10 goals and eight assists so far this season and his goal total has him also tied for fifth in the nation with Tufto.
The other two dominant scorers to watch out for are sophomore forward John Leonard and senior forward Jacob Pritchard. Leonard is third on the team in points, right behind Makar and Chaffee with 17, and Pritchard is behind him with 15.
“The biggest thing is matching their speed,” Priskie said on how to defend these elite players. “A lot of the elite players in our league they have high-end speed. With that high-end speed, they can make plays…For me, it’s just being able to match that speed, taking time and space away from them. And forcing them to make a play that they necessarily wouldn’t want to make.”
If you look at the team statistics, these two teams mirror each other. I’ll give you a quick rundown.
In ECAC Hockey, Quinnipiac is first in goals per game (3.87), first in goals against (1.77), third in power play percentage (27.3 percent) and first in penalty kill success (87.7 percent).
In Hockey East, UMass is first in goals per game (4.08), tied for first in goals against (2.00), first in power play success (32.1 percent) and second in penalty kill (87.7 percent).
So have two teams with high scoring offenses, shut-down defenses and exceptional special teams. Should be a fun one, huh?
“[The team needs to] just enjoy it,” senior forward Craig Martin said. “Stay even-keel, can’t get too high, can’t get too low. Do what we’ve been doing, stick to our details and play our game.”
Bottom line this is absolutely must-watch hockey. Whether you’re a die-hard hockey fan or someone who has never seen a game before, these are the games to go out and watch. Mark it on your calendar – 7 p.m. Friday in Hamden and 7:30 p.m. in Amherst, Massachusetts. You are not going to want to miss it.