Colleges

‘I’m sure we surprised a lot of people’: How UMass hockey became the No. 3 team in the country

Umass Amherst hockey head coach Greg Carvel (C) has a talk with his team during a break in the game against Princeton in the second period at the Mullins Center in Amherst, Massachusetts on November 24, 2018. UMass defeated Princeton 3-2 in overtime. Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe
Matthew Healey for the Globe
Coach Greg Carvel had a sense late last season that things were getting better.

Update: On Dec. 3, UMass vaulted to the top spot in the USCHO men’s hockey poll.

That a team from Hockey East sits at No. 3 in the national polls is not surprising. That the team in question is UMass, however, is.

That’s where you can find the Minutemen after their 12-1 start, including 7-0 in league play. UMass beat UConn, 7-4, Friday night at Mullins Center. Not bad for a team that was picked to finish sixth out of 11 teams in the conference’s preseason coaches poll.

“I’m sure we surprised a lot of people,” said UMass coach Greg Carvel. “We probably didn’t expect to be here. But we did expect to be a pretty good team this year.”

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The Minutemen are drawing from their experience of last season, when as many as a dozen freshmen were getting ice time. UMass went 4-1-1 to finish the regular season and earn home ice for the first round of the conference playoffs. After splitting a pair of overtime games with Vermont, the Minutemen routed the Catamounts in Game 3, 5-1, to win their first postseason series since 2007.

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UMass’s run ended in the conference quarterfinals with a sweep at the hands of a veteran Northeastern squad. The Minutemen finished the season 17-20-2.

“When we lost our last game at Northeastern, you just had that sense in the room that the guys knew that they were capable of having a strong year this year,” said Carvel. “Just from Day 1 on campus, from the staff through the players, we all knew we had a strong team here.”

There would be no easing into the schedule this year, as the Minutemen opened by sweeping a home-and-home series with Rensselaer, then traveled for a pair of games at then-No. 1 Ohio State, where they handed the Buckeyes their first loss of the season with a 6-3 win in the opener. They dropped the second game, 3-1, for their only setback thus far.

It’s been quite a turnaround for UMass, which just two seasons ago finished in last place in Hockey East, winning only two conference games and five overall in Carvel’s first year in Amherst.

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“I came in here not knowing what was possible,” said Carvel, who was hired in 2016 after five seasons at St. Lawrence. “It’s a little bit of a leap of faith. All I did was take the formula I was using at St. Lawrence and brought it here, because it was proving to be very effective.

“It’s really mostly about culture-building and relationship-building and getting quality kids who want to be held to a high standard.”

In addition to recruiting, Carvel credits the support he and the program have received from the school. He struck it big with his first class of recruits, who are sophomores now.

“We’re very fortunate to get kids like Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro and Johnny Leonard, who to me are all pro prospects, if not sure-bet NHL players,” said Carvel. “Then you need to have the investment from the university. Ryan Bamford, our athletic director, has done a great job of helping us build a program the way that it needs to be built to be competitive in Hockey East.”

Sophomore defenseman Cale Makar celebrated a goal against Princeton last Saturday.
Matthew Healey for the Globe
Sophomore defenseman Cale Makar celebrated a goal against Princeton last Saturday.

There was a possibility that Makar might not make it to Amherst after he was selected fourth overall in the 2017 NHL Draft by the Colorado Avalanche.

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“Leading up to the draft, we went out and watched him a lot,” said Carvel. “His stock rose and rose to the point where most scouts were saying, ‘You’ll never see Cale. He’ll never make it to campus.’

“The day of the draft, there were rumors that he was going to go No. 1 overall. If that was going to happen, he probably wasn’t going to make it to campus at all, but fortunately he’s got an adviser that believes in the college route. He’s got a family that very much understands the process and is not rushing their son. They’ve been phenomenal.”

Not only did Makar make his way to UMass, he came back for his sophomore season. The defenseman from Calgary has picked up his play, tallying six goals and 12 assists. He was the conference’s Player of the Month for October.

Makar and fellow blue liner Ferraro were named to the Hockey East all-rookie team last season. Ferraro, a native of King City, Ontario, was drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the second round in 2017, 49th overall. Leonard, who was born in Springfield and starred at Springfield Cathedral, led the Minutemen last season in scoring with 13 goals and 15 assists, and was also selected by the Sharks, in 2018 in the sixth round.

Matt Murray improved to 8-0 after UMass defeated Princeton in overtime last Saturday.
Matthew Healey for the Globe
Matt Murray improved to 8-0 after UMass defeated Princeton in overtime last Saturday.

The team also has been strong between the pipes. As a freshman, Matt Murray recorded four shutouts and showed promise, but Carvel believed both the coaches and the goalies needed to be better after last season.

“I realized as a staff that we weren’t giving our goalies enough attention and focus,” said Carvel. “I challenged Jared DeMichiel, our goalie coach, to create a different environment where our goalies had to work harder and battle harder. He’s done a phenomenal job with that. He works with them much more closely this year.”

Murray has responded with an 9-0 start and a save percentage of .936. A little healthy competition helps as well. Freshman Filip Lindberg (3-1, .936) joined the Minutemen this year.

Murray was in net when the Minutemen faced Providence in a home-and-home series in early November. At the time, the Friars were ranked No. 3 in the country, yet UMass swept both games by the same score, 3-2.

“Those were games, particularly the second game [at Providence], where our goaltender stole a game for us,” said Carvel. “When you play Providence, they’re such a strong team and they play the game so heavy, that it reveals your weaknesses.

“We were fortunate to get out of there with a sweep. The thing that I liked about it is that it exposed to me where we need to get better as a team, and we’ve worked hard on those areas since those games.”

There’s still plenty of hockey to be played, of course. There will be home-and-home series against traditional Hockey East powers Boston College and Boston University as well as with a Northeastern squad ranked 13th in the country. Next weekend brings a pair of games against No. 9 Quinnipiac.

And on Feb. 23, UMass heads to Providence for another round with the Friars. It’s understandable why Carvel doesn’t worry about his players becoming overconfident.

“It’s fun to be here, but then you have to balance that there’s expectations now,” said Carvel. “You can’t sneak up on anybody.

“But I really like our group’s focus all year. We’ve got a very businesslike attitude. For the most part, I don’t think we’ve gotten to a point where we’re overconfident. We’re still a young group, and we’re still trying to get better every game.”

Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney.