So as we know this has been a tale of two very different halves for the Massachusetts Minutemen this season. During the first half the results were nothing short of dreadful, full of futility and blowout losses. However, just after Christmas the team’s play has improved noticeably and as a result they’re just one game under .500 in their last 15 games. So what changed? Some have suggested it was the addition of Brandon Montour in mid-December that made the difference. Others have said it’s been better and more consistent play from the goaltenders. It’s likely a lot of different factors combined. Let’s take a look at some of the numbers during those two time periods and see where the team has made strides.
|First 17 Games||Last 15 Games||+/-|
|Goals per game||2.59||3.20||0.61|
|Goals Against per game||4.65||3.60||-1.05|
|Shots For per game||25.9||29.5||3.6|
|Shots Against per game||31.3||36.0||4.7|
So first off, the team is scoring more. 0.6 goals more per game to be exact. And that improvement put them over 3 goals per game, which is typically seen as a key threshold to getting wins. So where are those additional goals coming from? It hasn’t been Frank Vatrano, as he’s been pretty consistent all season. He was averaging 0.6 goals per game in the first half and is averaging 0.5 in the second half. Obviously Brandon Montour, who only played in two of the first 17 games, has been a big addition. His 0.2 goals per game and especially his 0.8 assists per game have helped boost the offense. Dennis Kravchenko has been a player who has seen a big increase in production, going from 0.7 points per game in the first half to 1.2 points per game in the second half, averaging just under an assist per game in that time. But the biggest boost in scoring has come from junior Shane Walsh. Walsh averaged just 0.1 goals per game in the first half but has a team leading 0.7 goals per game in the last 15 games. Also helping has been the play of Dominic Trento who did not score in the first half of the season but has scored 5 goals since the last game in December.
Helping drive that increase in scoring has been the fact that the team has gone from 25.9 shots on goal in the first half to 29.5 in the second half. That increase really has been a team effort with nearly all key players increasing their shot totals in that time. UMass’ power play has improved during this time as well, improving 3.6 points to 17.2%. In the first 17 games Vatrano was the only player with multiple power play goals with 3. He has 3 power play goals in the last 15 games as well, but now he’s has some company as Walsh, Kravchenko, and Troy Power all have multiple goals with the extra man too.
Obviously we know that defense was the main problem with the team’s play in the first half so it’s no surprise that that is the area of greatest improvement when the team started winning more games. After giving up a nationally worst 4.65 goals per game in the first half, the team has been able to reduce the goals given up by 23% to just 3.60 goals given up since. The combination of increased scoring and keeping the opponent out of the net has meant that the average goal margin per game has reduced by over a goal and a half.
What’s interesting about the improved goals against is the fact that opponents are actually getting quite a few more shots on goal in the second half of the season than the first half. The UMass goaltenders have had to face almost an additional five shots on net per game yet have given up over a goal less in that time. That means the goalies are saving shots at a better rate and indicates that improved play from Steve Mastalerz and Henry Dill as big factors for the team’s turnaround. Dill’s save percentage has climbed from .862 in the first half to .882 in the second half. But it’s been Mastalerz that has seen a monumental improvement. After going winless in the first 17 games and putting up a save percentage of just .848 he has saved 91.9% of the shots he has faced in his most recent 8 games. In fact the .919 save percentage in that time is better than some other starters in Hockey East like Boston University’s Matt O’Connor (.917), Vermont’s Mike Santaguida (.914), Lowell’s Kevin Boyle (.909), and Northeastern’s Clay Witt (.907).
So, as anticipated, there hasn’t been just one thing or player that can be credited for UMass’ turnaround. It’s been a total team effort that has involved everyone from freshman Dominic Trento to captain Troy Power. But I think it’s safe to say there have been four key players whose improved play, or presence alone, that have made the biggest difference. The addition of Brandon Montour and his point per game is a big help. Even when not scoring or assisting, just his puck movement and style of play has helped create offense for others. Kravchenko was already having a very solid freshman year before Christmas hit but has really kicked it into another gear since. The emergence of Shane Walsh as a legitimate scoring threat has been huge and something that few had foreseen considering he had only four goals during his first two seasons. What the stats don’t tell is how clutch he has been too, with many of his goals coming at key times in the game. And lastly, with defense and goals against being such a disaster in the first half the team has done a much better job at keeping the puck out of the net. But no one has made bigger strides in that effort than Mastalerz who is playing the best hockey of his career currently. Let’s hope these trends and contributions continue in the next couple weeks as UMass closes out the regular season and then plays in the opening round in the playoffs. At least things have started to click at the right time.
The Collegian has a good article on Maddison Smiley and his contributions to the team recently as a forward.
Troy Power talks about the Providence weekend in his most recent blog post.