BURLINGTON, Vt. — One thing was guaranteed at the end of Friday night’s Hockey East first-round game between No. 7 seed Vermont and No. 10 UMass-Amherst at Gutterson Fieldhouse – one of their seasons was most certainly going to be over.
In the first year of all 11 teams making the league playoffs, the Catamounts prevailed, 2-1, and advance to next weekend’s best-of-three quarterfinals.
The matchups won’t be set until Saturday night after the other two contests — Boston University at Notre Dame and Merrimack at Maine — have been decided.
After a rocky start for the home team in the first period, during which they looked jumpy, the Catamounts proved a little more opportunistic. Senior left wing Connor Brickley scored with 1 minute, 7 seconds remaining to lift his team to victory.
“There was so much at stake for both teams,’’ said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon. “There were a lot of nerves on our part. I thought we played much better as a team the second half of the game.’’
The first period was scoreless, but UMass carried the play.
The best save of the period, which Sneddon referred to as the best save of the year, was when UMass was shorthanded at 15:31. Adam Phillips had a point-blank chance but sophomore netminder Brody Hoffman (18 saves) gloved it.
“That was an amazing save,’’ said Sneddon. “We feel very fortunate to come out of this game.’’
Each side scored in the middle frame. Junior Troy Power put the Minutemen ahead at 2:40. Senior Conor Sheary got a shot off after his team battled to win a faceoff in the offensive zone. That led to a scramble, with Power potting his 10th goal of the season.
Junior defenseman Mike Paliotta pulled his team even with a shot from the point at 17:18 that beat junior goaltender Steve Mastalerz (24 saves).
There were other opportunities in the period for both sides.
Two of the best came back to back, just over 14 minutes in. Freshman right wing Mario Puskarich tried to hammer in two shots from in tight but Masterlerz kept them out. Puskarich kept buzzing the net and wound up drawing a penalty when he was cross-checked by defenseman Ben Gallacher.
Unfortunately for the Catamounts, they couldn’t cash in.
In the third, UVM had another power-play chance when Phillips was called for tripping.
But the Catamounts had trouble controlling the puck and gaining the zone, and the few times they did, UMass did an excellent job of protecting its net.
Not long after that, the Minutemen had a man advantage but they, too, failed to capitalize. In fact, the best scoring chance was actually by Vermont senior center Jake Fallon, who set up Paliotta’s goal.
Fallon charged up the left side but couldn’t get it past Mastalerz.
Shortly thereafter, Vermont went back on the power play, an abbreviated one, when UMass was called for too many men on the ice, but the home team had little to show for it.
The Minutemen had a two-on-one break with Michael Pereira and Ray Pigozzi racing in toward Hoffman, but senior defenseman Nick Bruneteau made a terrific play to break up the threat with about 4:45 remaining.
Then it was Brickley’s turn to propel his team to the next stop.
“It was great for Connor,’’ said Sneddon. “It’s been a struggle for him offensively [with five goals]. He’s always been an energy guy and a solid hitter but we need guys like that in the playoffs. It’s all about finding guys who might not put the puck in the net [regularly] to find a way to score.’’
Brickley’s sharp-angle shot from deep in the left circle wobbled and it went off Mastalerz’s pad and in, forcing the Minutemen to face a long drive home, empty-handed.
“I’m proud of the way our guys played despite the result,’’ said UMass coach John Micheletto. “That’s unfortunately been something that has plagued us, our conversion rate on opportunities. It’s been the Achilles’ heel for us.’’Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Elle1027.