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View From Section U: UMass Hockey At The Break

While college hockey’s winter break isn’t a real halfway point as UMass has only played 13 of its 34 games, it is a good time to take stock of what we’ve seen so far.  Teams have over a third of the season under their belt and have usually played nearly all of their non-conference matchups while getting a start on their conference schedule.  So, as UMass enters a few weeks filled with finals and holiday festivities, how do the Minutemen stack up against expectations?  To sum up my thoughts on the 2010-2011 UMass Minutemen:  They are who we thought they were!

In my season preview I laid out a few thoughts about this year’s squad.

>  These players would play as a team.

I think this team has done just that.  Win, lose, or tie, they’ve done so with a group effort.  No one player has tried to put this team on their shoulders and carry them to wins.  In one of the wins this season all scoring was done by freshmen while defensemen provided all the goals in another.  Passing, while not always crisp, is prevalent and very rarely are players trying to go coast to coast with the puck to put it in themselves.  In fact at times they’ve looked almost too unselfish.  I think the captains deserve a lot of the credit as they’ve certainly put the success of the team above all.

>  While the team’s offense would be inconsistent at times, overall players would step up to fill the gap left behind by the players lost in the offseason.

Sure enough, while there have been times where UMass as struggled to generate shots on net, the team has done well in the scoring department.  Currently they are 5th among Hockey East teams with 2.85 goals per game.  Compare that to the total last year of 2.92 goals per game, 7th in the league.  They’ve been able to do so thanks to getting scoring from nearly the entire roster.  Of the 25 skaters who have dressed for the Minutemen so far this season 15 have scored a goal.   UMass had 17 goal scorers all of last season.  Of course leading the Minutemen in scoring is freshman Mike Pereira who has turned out to be exactly the player I thought and hoped he would be.  Freshman forwards Brendan Gracel and Conor Sheary have made great contributions to the offense thanks to their very active play.  UMass has also seen increased production from juniors T.J. Syner, who has created a lot of offense thanks to his forecheck and ability to steal the puck, and Danny Hobbs, who is one point behind his entire 2009-10 total despite missing a few games to injury.   If there’s one thing to complain about on offense it’s the power play where UMass finds itself next to last in the league converting on 11.2% of their chances.

>  There was reason to worry about the defense.

The amount of youth on the blueline has made for some heart-stopping moments and perhaps some lost opportunities for wins.  Certainly a more veteran group may have been able to hold onto that late lead in UNH and perhaps figured out a way to keep the Gophers from gaining both games in Minnesota.  But overall the team hasn’t played that much worse than last year’s squad.  In fact, they’re allowing 3.23 goals per game compared to 3.25 last year.  Those stats have been good for 8th in the league in both years however.  Not exactly cause for celebration. The good news is the defense seems to be improving.  During their recent unbeaten streak they allowed just 2.00 goals a game until Maine put four up over the weekend.  But beyond the numbers you can atruly see the younger players doing the things needed on the defensive end; sticks in the passing lanes, better positioning, and getting down to block shots.  And that goes for the forwards and defensemen both.

>  Goaltending will be the team’s strength.

For the most part this has been true.  Paul Dainton’s numbers, 3.00 GAA and .911 save percentage are both improvements over last year.  And that’s despite the fact that he was injured early in the season and needed a couple games to regain his form.  Recently he has played perhaps his best games of his career.  What wasn’t expected though was for freshman Jeff Teglia to be forced into action at the very onset of the season and put in some solid performances, including a 2 goal tie at BU.

>  This team will make the playoffs.

If the playoffs started today, it would be March 11th.  But if that were the case UMass, currently in 8th place, would be in line for the playoffs.  Their total record of 3-7-3 is below my expectations at this point.  I certainly did not expect them to lose to Army and not find a way to win against Providence (though to be fair, the Friars are playing much better than I expected).  But a Hockey East record of 2-4-3 isn’t too far out of line considering their early conference schedule consisted of a weekend at UNH, a game at BU, and having to travel north to Maine.  And coming away with two points from those four tough away matchups is acceptable.

It certainly was a tough first part of the season, starting off winless in their first nine.  But there were very few games were UMass was completely blown out.  The team has had to go through some growing pains but has been able to stay in most of the games and keep the outcomes respectable.  Not all young teams in Hockey East can say the same.  I think it is asking a lot of this team to come out of the break with an upset of Wisconsin out in Madison (though I won’t be complaining if that comes to pass).  But the weekend after will be an interesting test for the Minutemen to kick off the true Hockey East season with games at home against Northeastern and UNH.  UMass has played well enough in the league and thanks to some games in hand has a chance to seriously improve their standing within Hockey East.  But Northeastern is the type of team they’ll absolutely have to beat to do so.  How UMass does the next night against the Wildcats, one of college hockey’s best, will also be a good measuring stick.  UMass has traditionally begun their season swan dive around this team of year.  Hopefully, like so much else with this year’s team, that will also change.

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The LA Kings website has a cool feature where they have their players share first hand accounts of how they got into the game of hockey.  Here’s Jon Quick’s entry.

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Looks like Jack Parker and the BU Terriers didn’t make a lot of fans out at RPI over the weekend.  That’s a very impressive win by an Engineer squad that lost a lot over the summer, including star Jerry D’Amigo.

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