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UMass hockey motivated and in great position to take Hockey East by storm By Liam Flaherty

Photos by Collegian Photo Editor Caroline O'Connor and Collegian Staff.

With summer fading and the sights of fall rapidly enclosing New England, the Massachusetts hockey team’s third season under head coach Greg Carvel is shaping up to be an important one.

On the heels of a 2017-18 season that saw UMass post its best record and win its first Hockey East Association playoff series in Amherst since 2007, the program is primed to continue climbing.

Alongside the “NewMass” identity that Carvel implemented after a dismal first season with the team, a crop of proven veterans and excited freshmen look to make this season a historic ride.

“We exceeded a lot of expectations last year and I think it’s going to be the same this year,” said sophomore Cale Makar. “We know there's real expectations for us this year and we’re just going to build on those and not really look at the forecast, but kind of look at our game and focus on the present.”

There is certainly a lot to be excited about for the Maroon and White; most notably the return of Makar, as well as defenseman Mario Ferraro and forwards Niko Hildenbrand and John Leonard.

The trio of Hildenbrand (primary), Makar (assistant) and Ferraro (assistant) will serve as team captains for the Minutemen in 2018-19, which Carvel expressed was an easy decision to make.

“I see [Makar] and [Ferraro] look much stronger and faster and that’s quite a statement because it’s not like they were in bad shape last year,” he said. “They’re two kids that have elevated their game. Niko looks quicker and slimmer as well, like a streamlined version of what he was before. So, I’m real proud of those guys on the ice. I think they’re all poised to have very great seasons.”

“I’m very humbled,” Makar said. “It’s awesome to be recognized as a leader on this team, but at the end of the day you don't need a letter to be a leader. That’s one of my main beliefs. We have a lot of different leaders here and I think that’s why we’re going to be successful this year.”

In particular, Makar pointed out the importance of Leonard’s role as a sophomore standout.

During his freshman campaign with the Minutemen, Leonard, an Amherst native, garnered the most points with 28 and tied the team-lead in goals alongside Mitchell Chaffee with 13 tallies.

After exploding offensively last winter, Leonard became the first UMass skater since 2007 to be selected in the NHL Entry Draft (182nd overall) following his freshman year.

Upon the sixth-round selection by the San Jose Sharks, Leonard joined the company of Ferraro, who was drafted 49th overall by the Sharks in 2017, and Makar — the fourth pick in 2017 — as recent Minutemen draftees.

“We’re all really excited,” Leonard said entering regular season contention. “The returning guys have waited a long time for this. We had a good end to last season. Obviously it didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but we were happy with the way we started to play at the end of the year.”

Coupled with the rest of the returning sophomores that produced beyond expectations last season, such as Chaffee and Oliver Chau, UMass boasts a foundation of 19 underclassmen.

“We have a lot of momentum going into this year,” Leonard added. “I know the new guys are extremely excited to throw on that Massachusetts sweater for the first time and we've been trying to work with them to help them out as much as we can to get ready for it.”

Although it was an extremely difficult task to follow up the freshman class that was one of the most impressive in all of college hockey last season, Carvel, along with associate head coach Ben Barr and assistant coach Jared DeMichiel, recruited eight skaters to aid the Minuteman core.

On the offensive side, the staff brought in the likes of Anthony Del Gaizo, Bobby Kaiser and Bobby Trivigno, who they hope will add to the offensive unit through strength and physicality.

On defense, the group pursued Marc Del Gaizo, Ty Farmer, Kolby Vegara and Colin Felix. With several injuries to veteran defensemen, this group should see a lot of playing time early on.

Following Friday’s exhibition win over Royal Military College of Canada, that saw Makar and Del Gaizo paired in the defensive end, Makar said the duos’ tempo of play match up well.

In net, UMass acquired Filip Lindberg from Espoo, Finland to join sophomore netminder Matt Murray. In a preseason interview, Carvel said the goaltenders will have to battle for the top spot.

Although not a freshman, Carvel and his recruiting partners also acquired the skill set of senior transfer forward Jacob Pritchard, who played his freshman season under Carvel at St. Lawrence in 2015-16.

“It’s different every year, but with the increased NCAA time we’ve been able to practice more with the guys,” Carvel said. “In the last week I think we’ve seen them start to realize what we’re trying to do on the ice and how to execute. I think they’re almost up to speed, but the games reveal a lot. We need to get in gear and try to get on top of our game as quick as possible.”

“It’s going to be fun, finally being able to get the season started,” Makar said, echoing the sentiments of his coach. “You wait so long in the NCAA and it’s excruciating at times, but at the end of the day, we are where we are right now, and I think we’re just building on that. It’s going to be exciting for us, just to play with all the new guys. I know they are going to be ready to go.”

Things are coming together for the up-and-coming Minutemen squad in Amherst, which hopes that another year of hard work alongside its firm “NewMass” identity will bring exciting results.

“We just want to be a Hockey East contender,” Leonard said affirmatively. “We have the talent and we have the skill. It’s just going to come down to who wants it more at the end of the year.”

“We have all the tools to do it, we just have to execute,” he added. “I think we’re going to be really good this year. We just have to do things the right way and the rest will take care of itself.”

Liam Flaherty can be reached at lpflaherty@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @_LiamFlaherty.

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