UMass hockey team gives record-setting crowd something to cheer about

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AMHERST — The players noticed. That was one certainty Saturday night.

"It was something special," University of Massachusetts defenseman Ivan Chukarov said of the towel-waiving, white-clad, record-setting hockey crowd that packed into the Mullins Center.

"You kind of got goose bumps walking out there," said Chukarov, "and seeing all the people with white towels. It was a site to see.

"It's something we haven't been used to in a while."

Chukarov and his top-ranked Minutemen gave the record-setting gathering of 8,412 something to remember, as they scored three goals in the third period to come back and knock off eighth-ranked Quinnipiac 3-1.

Chukarov's goal at 5:27 of the third period tied the game, while Jacob Pritchard backhanded the puck past Quinnipiac goalie Keith Petruzzelli just 3:10 later, putting the Minutemen ahead for keeps. Philip Lagunov got the assist on Pritchard's second game-winning goal of the season.

"That's probably the biggest crowd I've played in front of in a while," Pritchard said, "so it was really cool."

It was the largest-ever hockey crowd to watch UMass inside the Mullins Center. It was also the largest crowd to witness a sporting event in the venue since UMass played VCU on Feb. 21, 2014 in front of 9,493.

UMass (13-2-0) came into the weekend ranked No. 1 in the USCHO.com national poll. Losing to No. 8 Quinnipiac (14-3-0) by a 4-0 score Friday in Hamden, Conn., will likely change UMass' top ranking. But third-year coach Greg Carvel said that nothing should diminish the Minutemen's performance on Saturday.

"That's great college hockey, and it's great to see it in this building with 8,000 people," Carvel said. "It doesn't get any better than this. You beat a really good team at home in front of a full house. I'm really happy for my kids.

"They deserve all the good things that are happening to them."

It has been a glorious season for the UMass hockey team. The Minutemen came on everyone's radar screen when they split a weekend road series at then-No. 1 Ohio State. After losing the second game of the weekend series, all Carvel's team has done was win nine straight, including sweeping a series from then third-ranked Providence, a Hockey East rival. UMass also knocked off No. 18 Princeton in the weeks leading up to this weekend's performances against Quinnipiac. The Bobcats are one of the top teams in the ECAC Hockey League, and are tied with Yale for the top spot. Yale, by the way, will be at the Mullins Center Tuesday night for the first-semester finale.

Losing the first games of weekend series are always tough, because a team doesn't have a lot of time to bounce back. Playing 24 hours after Quinnipiac shut out UMass 4-0 behind a 32-save performance from Andrew Shortridge, the Minutemen played with a good jump from the opening faceoff.

"We challenged them. We thought last night, Quinnipiac played their game. They were winning battles and we showed them the videos. We had to be heavier and we had to win battles. I thought right from the start, we did a good job of that," Carvel said. "To see the mental toughness when you're playing well, and you play two periods and haven't scored a goal — you haven't scored in five periods — the mental toughness and the tenacity of the team to keep grinding and eventually score a couple of goals."

Quinnipiac defenseman Chase Priskie got the Bobcats on the board at 8:24 of the second period when he wristed a shot past Matt Murray on the power-play. Lagunov had been serving a hooking minor at the time.

Murray played well in goal for UMass. He improved his record to 10-0-0 and made 27 saves. Ten of those saves came in the third period.

With the lead, it looked like Petruzzelli — a former Springfield Cathedral hockey standout from Wilbraham — was going to make it stand up. Petruzzelli, a third-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings, made 25 saves through two periods and 37 for the game, and continued what Shortridge had started on Friday night.

That all changed 5:27 into the third period when Chukarov's wrist shot from the top of the slot eluded Petruzzelli. That ended UMass' scoreless streak against the Bobcats at 115 minutes, 27 seconds. Three minutes later, that all changed.

UMass started the line of Lagunov, Pritchard and Amherst resident John Leonard. And when they hopped over the boards in the third period, their hard work lit the lamp.

"It was a bit frustrating. Five periods, we hadn't scored a goal," said Pritchard, referring to Chukarov's tally. "I think we felt momentum was coming our way and we were going to crack one pretty soon, so we were optimistic."

It all started when Leonard, hard on the forecheck, separated Quinnipiac defenseman Peter DiLiberatore from the puck. The disc slid to Lagunov, who passed it to Pritchard and the senior from Macomb, Mich., backhanded the puck past Petruzzelli. The capacity crowd went crazy as the Minutemen had their first lead against the Bobcats.

"It was a perfect forecheck created a turnover. Phil made a great pass," said Pritchard, "and I tucked it in."

Carvel said he had challenged that line, and it came through.

"I wasn't happy at all with that line's play [Friday] night," the coach said. "I thought they were very soft. As I've told that line, they make our team go up or down. They have that ability to affect the game. [Jake] Gaudet, [Mitchell Chaffee] and [Oliver] Chau, I know what I'm going to get from them every night. Lagunov, Pritchard and Leonard, some nights they're sky high and flying around the ice. [Friday] at Quinnipiac, they didn't touch the puck and they didn't check anybody. So, I had a little heart-to-heart with them.

"I thought, as the game went on, they got stronger and stronger."

Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold pulled Petruzzelli with 2:28 left in the game for the extra attacker. The Bobcats could not get the tying tally, while Bobby Trivigno shot from center ice into the empty net for the 3-1 final.

Chukarov was asked if he and his teammates felt any additional pressure performing in front of a sold-out house, and wanting to get the win.

"Personally, I don't really feel that. I kind of zone them out a bit during the game," he said. "It's always nice to get a win in front of that many fans, because it'll bring them back for more."

Howard Herman can be reached at hherman@berkshireeagle.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.


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