With the Massachusetts hockey team in the midst of a bye week and having played just under a quarter of their total and league games, it seems like a good opportunity to step back and take inventory of what we’ve seen from them so far. UMass finds themselves with an overall record of 3-5-0 and 1-4-0 in Hockey East where they’re currently tied for 9th with Boston College (wait, that can’t be right. Nope, apparently it is). Through eight games last year the team had a 3-4-1 record with wins over Michigan State (twice) and Maine.
The first eight games have consisted of two home games a month apart with a brutal six game, three weekend, three state road trip that saw UMass play at Michigan State for two, at Northeastern, at Boston College, and at Maine for two. When you add in this ridiculous bye week I can confidently say that I hate this schedule. That type of early season extended road trip is difficult for any team. When you consider that this UMass team has a large number of freshman who are still trying to integrate to college and the college hockey lifestyle, it’s that much more challenging. There were certainly a lot of worries as the team packed up to afte the absolutely horrible third period against BU where they gave up six goals, making for a disappointing and embarrassing opening night. I’m still not sure what happened to the team that period to make them look so absolutely lost on the ice. The good news is there hasn’t been another extended stretch where they’ve played like that since.
The first leg of the road trip was to Michigan State where the team tried to erase those BU memories by battling to the final whistle both nights. After their comeback fell short on Friday against the Spartans they got some heroics and absolutely beautiful goals on Saturday as Patrick Lee gave them their first win of the season with just seconds left on the clock. The next weekend the team travelled to Boston, winning versus Northeastern while losing to Boston College. The Minutemen did what they had to do against the struggling Huskies with Henry Dill playing spectacularly in net. At the time I was happy with the team’s play the next night against BC, considering the difference on the scoreboard ended up being two two-man advantage goals by the Eagles. However after seeing how BC has struggled since, I wonder if UMass missed an opportunity to take a point or possibly two that night. The following weekend at Maine was a tough one as UMass was in a position to win both nights, coming from behind to tie it Friday and going into the third with a two goal lead on Saturday, only to lose both of them. Last weekend the team got revenge for last year’s debacle against AIC with a decisive 7-1 win.
So at 3-5-0 and 1-4-0 in conference, is the team meeting expectations? Honestly I would say that if the team had been able to convert just one of those games at Maine into a win that I’d be pretty satisfied at this point. A 4-4 record while withstanding that long road trip would be a pretty good accomplishment. I think there was also a point in play in the home opener against BU too that was missed. Though in the weeks since the Terriers are showing that they’ve turned around that program quite quickly. So I’m slightly disappointed where the team is currently. Just one more win or perhaps a couple of ties and it’d be a different story.
There is a lot to be hopeful about when the team gets back to playing next week though. The big concern coming into the season was that they were graduating a great majority of their goal scoring and would have to depend on the freshman to contribute offensively. The seven goals against AIC skews the numbers a bit, but I don’t think offense is as big a worry as it was thought to be. The Minutemen are scoring 3.25 goals per game so far this season, third best among Hockey East teams. That’s just over a full goal above the 2.24 goals per game they scored during last season. They’re getting offense from all over the roster as well. 11 different players have scored at least one goal and eight different players have scored two or more goals. And keep in mind that key players Frank Vatrano and Dennis Kravchenko didn’t get things going until three games ago when Coach Micheletto shook up the lines. Kravchenko is now on a three game goal streak while Vatrano is on a four game point streak.
Going into the season it was known that defense would be a question mark and potentially a huge weakness. I would say so far the results on defense have been mixed. There have been some pretty bad games like the third period against BU and the first game at Maine. But at the same time there qw been great goaltending like Dill’s performance against Northeastern, a solid team defensive effort against Boston College, and the recent performance against AIC. Still, the team finds themselves dead last among Hockey East teams giving up four goals per game, up quite a bit from the 3.12 goals they gave up last year. The bad defensive games have been plagued with missed assignments and poor positioning. All things that are correctable. UMass will have to make sure to fix those glaring mistakes on defense while getting more consistent goaltending from Dill or Steve Mastalerz or both.
Special teams was a positive last season and that’s carried over into this year. Their power play is converting at 14.3% this year, lower than the 20+% last year but that’s still fourth best among Hockey East teams. With Vatrano and Kravchenko starting to heat up offensively the team’s power play numbers should improve going forward. The penalty kill was a major negative in the beginning of last season but Mick made some adjustments and by the end of the season had turned the PK into a strength. They’ve picked up about where they left off, killing 84.1% of their opponents power play chances. A strong number, but room for improvement. It’s really those two two man advantages against BC that hurt them so far.
A 3-5-0 record is nothing to be satisfied with, but the team has shown promise and I think there’s reason to believe they’ll continue to get better in the coming months. Really, except for that anomaly period against BU, the team has been in every game with a legitimate chance to win most of them. The freshmen have proven they can be relied upon to score while at the same time you have senior Zack LaRue off to a surprisingly hot start. If the defense and goaltending can catch up to the progress made on offense than this team should start winning games regularly. The December addition of NHL 2nd round draft pick Brandon Montour won’t hurt either. Hopefully the team is resting, but improving, during this week without games, because they’re in for another difficult stretch. Starting with hosting BC on the 21st to playing at Quinnipiac on the 29th they’ll have to play five games in nine days. The team has proven they can stay in games. But just hanging around in games doesn’t get you much. They’ll have to convert close games into close wins in this next chapter of the season.
Kurt Keats has officially signed his letter of intent to play at UMass. Included in that link is a video with some highlights and Mick’s thoughts on him. Those who read the recruit updates know that Keats is one of the leading scorers in the BCHL and is a very solid pickup for the Minutemen.
Though the school hasn’t announced it yet, Ty Pelton-Byce signed his NLI tonight. Here’s a picture of him doing so, surrounded by friends and teammates.
UMass’ victory over AIC and the potential for a rival with the neighboring school was a subject in the weekly USCHO Hockey East column.