UMass hockey aims to hold onto top spot long term

  • UMass head coach Greg Carvel tosses a puck to a group of players during practice Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass Head Coach Greg Carvel, right, talks to Bobby Trivigno during practice Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 at the Mullins Center practice rink. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Cale Makar, front left, and John Leonard, front right, try to win control of the puck during UMass practice Tuesday. Other are, from left, Marc Del Gaizo, Jacob Pritchard, Philip Lagunov and Filip Lindberg. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass players Mitchell Chaffee, left, and George Mika vie for the puck during practice Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 at the Mullins Center practice rink. Goalie Filip Lindberg is in the background. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass Head Coach Greg Carvel, right, talks to his team during practice Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 at the Mullins Center practice rink. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass goalie Matt Murray takes shots from Cale Makar during practice Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass head coach Greg Carvel, front, talks to his team during practice Tuesday, at the Mullins Center Practice Rink. The Minutemen were ranked No. 1 for the first time Monday. They play a home-and-home with No. 8 Qunnipiac, starting Friday in Hamden, Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Niko Hildenbrand, right, talks to Jake Gaudet during a water break at UMass practice Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 at the Mullins Center practice rink. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/4/2018 11:15:31 PM

AMHERST — The messages started to pile up for Greg Carvel shortly after noon on Monday.

The latest poll from U.S. College Hockey Online had just anointed UMass the top team in the country, and with that distinction came the emails and phone calls for the third-year coach. For all the top ranking does for the Minutemen off the ice in terms of recruiting and exposure, it does little to help them on the ice over the final three-plus months of the season.

Arguably, it makes the road even more challenging for the team over the last two-thirds of the regular season.

“It won’t help us win any games, that’s for sure,” Carvel said. “It will bring out the best in our opponents. We talked (Monday) about how we were excited to play Ohio State because they had just been named No. 1 and we gave them the best game we could. I think we’ll get the same thing from Quinnipiac (on Friday and Saturday).”

The players, most of whom either played on the five-win team of 2016-17 or entered the program the following offseason, are stepping back to appreciate the moment. The thought of leading UMass to a top ranking was never on their minds when they arrived in Amherst, they just wanted to establish their own legacy as a team. They wanted to help bring the Minutemen back to prominence and compete to qualify for the NCAA tournament.

Junior forward Niko Hildenbrand said it was a special moment for everyone in the locker room to learn that UMass was ranked No. 1, but that the team didn’t take much time to celebrate the accomplishment.

“Everyone in there is super humbled by it and it’s awesome to see,” Hildenbrand said. “It’s one of those things you never thought you would do coming here to play college hockey and stuff. It’s really awesome, but it’s one of those things which it’s great to see but we kind of need to keep it out and keep our focus on the weekend.”

Sophomore defenseman Cale Makar couldn’t help but crack a smile every time he mentioned the upcoming challenges for the Minutemen. Makar — the No. 4 overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft — is used to being in the spotlight and he said he has had to deal with teams trying to knock his team’s off the top pedestal for most of his hockey career.

He said the biggest obstacles for UMass are just beginning for him and his teammates as they now try to stay atop the mountain.

“It’s obviously very special for this program in general,” Makar said. “But for a team as a whole, we’re just focused on the process and focused on coming to the rink every day and getting better. The work is just getting started, and we’re going to embrace the challenge of everybody chasing after us right now.”

One of the main reasons UMass has continued to re-establish program highs in the national rankings is the players’ consistency from day-to-day. Carvel said he’s been impressed with how well the Minutemen have handled each new challenge and never dropped their level since returning to campus in September.

No matter the style of game, UMass has always adapted, whether it’s a physical, tight-checking game like it faced against Providence, or a more free-flowing showcase of skills like last week against UConn. That is an attribute Makar credits to the team’s grit and workmanlike attitude.

“We know as a team we have a lot of skill, but at the end of the day, hard work trumps talent and that’s where our mindset has been at the entire year,” Makar said. “Our hard work has gotten us to this point and there’s no way we can stray away from that right now.”

The Minutemen (12-1-0) will have little time to get comfortable with their new ranking as they face No. 8 Quinnipiac in a home-and-home series this weekend. The Bobcats (13-2-0) have won five of their last six games and hope to end the nine-game streak UMass is riding into Friday’s contest in Hamden, Connecticut.

And extending those winning ways is all Carvel wants to focus on right now because a one-week stint at No. 1 isn’t good enough.

“We’re No. 1 today in December, our goal now is to try to hold on to that,” Carvel said. “I honestly won’t enjoy it unless we beat a really good Quinnipiac team twice this weekend. If we’re No. 1 for a day or less than a week, then maybe we didn’t deserve it.”

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