The Massachusetts Minutemen play an exhibition hockey game this Friday against the US Junior National Team, but for all intents and purposes the team is on winter break, having played 18 of its 34 regular season games this season. So this is a good time to reflect on what has transpired so far in the first half of the season. Maybe it makes sense to split that half in halves again, because there were two distinct phases of the season and one could almost say the Minutemen were two distinct teams in those two time periods. In the early part of the season UMass surprised everyone, jumping out to a 6-2-1 record and finding itself just on the outside of the USCHO rankings. But the Minutemen have not won since grabbing that sixth win on November 7th, going winless in their last nine games and losing their last five straight before break. The sum of the two performances leaves UMass holding an overall record of 6-8-4 with their 2-4-4 league record leaving them in a three-way tie for 7th place with New Hampshire and Vermont.
After losing star underclassmen Frank Vatrano and Brandon Montour as well as seven seniors the Minutemen were not expected to do much this season, picked to finish last by both the Hockey East media and coaches. But the team kicked the season off on a positive note by travelling to Colorado College and sweeping the rebuilding Tigers on opening weekend behind 10 total goals scored. UMass opened their home schedule the next week with a convincing 5-2 win over Sacred Heart before hosting New Hampshire in the first league game the following week. Even though it ended in a tie, that game against UNH was probably the highlight of the season as the Minutemen rallied from a 6-1 deficit and scored 4 third period goals to grab the league point.
In the next game UMass would defeat Maine 5-4 in overtime in the first game of the Capital City Classic. Through the first five games of the season UMass was 4-0-1, scoring 5.2 goals per game. But the next night in the tournament championship the Minutemen would have to face their first ranked team of the season, #13 Yale, who boasted an extremely tough defense and stellar goaltending. The result was UMass picking up their first loss of the season, getting blown out 6-1. A few days later the team would travel to Chestnut Hill to face #3 Boston College, another team with strong defense and elite goaltending. This time the result would be a 7-0 loss at the hands of the Eagles in a game that featured some of the more blatant defensive breakdowns in recent memory, including the 3-on-none “Flying V” breakaway goal.
UMass was now 4-2-1 and while the team had shown it could get an advantage against some of the bad teams around college hockey, it had major challenges just to look competitive against the good teams. UMass would rebound the next weekend with a home and home sweep of then struggling UConn. After falling at home to #14 Merrimack the next Friday the Minutemen would travel up to Vermont and grab a key road point against the Catamounts. They’d pick up two more points after a couple more ties on the road against UNH and Merrimack, but some troubling issues would come to the surface that weekend, including the previously high-flying UMass offense scoring just three goals. The scoring problems got worse the next weekend when the Minutemen had to play #3 Quinnipiac and scored just one goal total in the Bobcat home and home sweep. The next weekend they travelled to Notre Dame, losing 3-1 and 5-1 with both UMass goals scored by Shane Walsh. They closed out the season last Friday a 4-3 loss to Union on a defensive breakdown with 12 seconds left in overtime.
So at the midseason break the team is two games under .500 at 6-8-4 and tied for 7th place in the conference. Is that good? Is it bad? It’s certainly better than last year when they finished 12 games under .500 and in last place. Despite losing its top scorer in Vatrano, the team is scoring at almost exactly the same rate as last season, 2.78 this year versus 2.75 last year. The 2.78 is 7th best among Hockey East teams, an improvement from 9th at the end of last year. The team has improved slightly on the power play too, going from 15.2% last year, 9th best among league teams, to 16.9% this year, 8th best.
The more noticeable improvement though has probably come with the team’s defensive performance. Last year the Minutemen gave up 4.22 goals per game, 2nd worst in the entire country with only AIC giving up more. This year, thanks to the addition of skilled defensemen like William Lagesson, Ivan Chukarov, and Callum Fryer, as well as the goaltending of freshman Nic Renyard that goals allowed number has improved to 3.50 so far. .72 goals less per game is a pretty significant improvement, but at the same time the team had a long way to go to get to being considered respectable defensively. They’re still second to last among Hockey East teams in goals allowed per game and 9th worst in the country. Like last year, it’s going to be really tough to win games when you’re giving up that many goals no matter what your offense is doing. The team has given up 4 or more goals in 8 of their 18 games played so far.
The real dramatic improvement defensively has been on the penalty kill where UMass is killing penalties at a rate of 82.5% versus 76.0% last year. The Minutemen head into the break on a streak of 26 straight penalties killed, which is pretty remarkable. Personally I think a lot of the improved penalty kill is due specifically to the play of Nic Renyard, who has a better save percentage shorthanded (.914) than at even strength (.904). Renyard has given up a lot of goals this season when opponents have been able to fill his vision with bodies in front of the net. I think he actually does better on the penalty kill because there’s one less player in front of him and the opponents are typically spread out on the perimeter in the umbrella, thereby allowing him to see the puck better and make the needed saves.
So while the team’s numbers have improved overall compared to last season on a whole, I think the story of the season is better understood when splitting the statistics from the beginning of the season to when the team got their 6th (and last) win on November 7th and then their performance in the games since. Defensively the team hasn’t been that much different in those times, giving up 4.00 goals per game over the first nine games of the season and then improving to 3.00 goals per game in the second 9. Again, driving a lot of that improvement has been the penalty kill where UMass was stopping just 71.8% of opponents power play chances, worst in Hockey East during that time, to stopping 24 of 24 chances in the 9 games since. They’re they only league team not to allow a power play goal in that time. That spectacular improvement has driven the one goal per game improvement in opponents’ scoring.
Unfortunately the UMass offense has gotten so anemic during that same time period they’ve been unable to leverage any advantage given to them by their improved defense and goaltending. The Minutemen were scoring 4.00 goals per game over the first 9 games, third best among Hockey East teams, and boasted the 7th best power play in the country at 25.8%. In the most recent nine games UMass is scoring a putrid 1.56 goals per game, the second fewest in the entire country in that time. Only Colgate is worst at 1.38 goals scored in each of their contests. The power play during that time has converted at a rate of just 7.1%, 4th worst in the country.
Looking at the individual statistics just as the success of the first nine games was a team effort, so has the struggles of the most recent nine. Six different players had two or more goals over the first nine games of the season, with Dennis Kravchenko and Shane Walsh both scoring 7 apiece, Austin Plevy with 6, Dominic Trento with 5, and Ray Pigozzi with 4. Walsh and Pigozzi have been able to continue their goal contributions for the most part in the last nine games scoring 5 and 3 respectively. But Kravchenko, Plevy, and Trento have yet to find the back of the net since UMass got their last win. In fact those three players, who combined for 28 points in the first 9 games, have totaled just 6 in the last nine.
So why has the scoring for those three and the rest of the team dried up so dramatically in November and December? I think there may be a couple reasons to explain why the team’s output has fallen as time has gone on. When the season started, UMass, a team that added 9 freshmen in the offseason and lost its two biggest stars, was rolling out a lineup very different than it did when teams saw them last in March. Without Vatrano, Kravchenko was playing a much different role on offense and teams were caught off-guard by the talented Plevy. As the team has played more there’s more video of this reformulated Minuteman lineup and opposing coaching are better able to employ a strategy to neutralize their offensive options ahead of time before even seeing them.
You’re even seeing this play out when UMass sees a team a second time this season and there’s now a familiarity that UMass’ production has typically gone down. The team scored 6 in opening night against Colorado College but the Tigers held them to 4 the next night. UMass roared back to tie UNH with 6 total goals at the Mullins but when they met in Durham later on the Minutemen only managed two goals. Merrimack gave up two goals to UMass in their first victory but only allowed one goal a week later. Quinnipiac gave up a single goal the first night the teams played but shutout the Minutemen the next night. Notre Dame held the Minutemen to a single goal both nights they played. UConn is the only outlier where UMass scored more goals (5) the second night they played them than the first (4). If this trend continues it does not bode well for the second half when UMass will face Yale, Boston College, Vermont, and Maine again after facing them in the first half. Coach John Micheletto has to do a better job of mixing up his offensive strategy and overcoming the scouting and prior knowledge by opposing coaching in the second half.
The other reason driving the huge dropoff in the last nine games is likely the quality of opponent. The Minutemen played just two ranked teams in the their first nine games and got drubbed by a combined score of 13-1 in those two games. Recently the quality of opponent has increased with six of their most recent nine games coming against ranked opponents. The team has shown that it can do well against pretty bad teams, which at least is an improvement over last year. The team’s six wins have come against teams with a combined record of 25-69-8, just a .284 win percentage. At the same time the team has gone 0-7-1 so far against the ranked teams it has faced. They’ve been outscored in those games against ranked teams 31-7, averaging less than a goal per game. Micheletto’s teams at UMass have historically done poorly against ranked teams, going 10-38-7 in 3 and a half seasons with the best performance coming in his first year when he was 4-9-2. He has to figure out a way to at least make this team competitive against the best teams in the country as 9 of the final 16 games are against teams currently in the USCHO top 20 rankings, including six teams currently in the top 10.
So can the first half of the season be considered a success? A short five weeks ago when the team was sitting at 6-2-1 it was a without a doubt a successful start to the season, blowing away any reasonable expectations by UMass fans and detractors alike. But now at 6-8-4 and on pace towards a perhaps a dozen wins and another losing season, it would be tough to call that a success. A marginal improvement from last season when the team finished dead last in Hockey East? Yes. The team had 4 wins in 16 games at the break last year. It has 6 wins in 18 games at the break this year. Is that material improvement?
Not much has really changed since I wrote in my season preview that the team and Micheletto were in desperate need of a turnaround. I don’t think we’ve reached that turnaround yet this season. It appeared we may have found it for a while, but the past five weeks, and especially the last three, have been brutal. The team appears to be regressing as the season goes on and that is alarming. It’s also an indictment on the job being done by Micheletto. In year four of the Micheletto era at UMass the team doesn’t appear any better than it was in the year before he took over, when the team was 5-7-4 heading into the winter break.
In my season preview I wrote that Micheletto has to prove that he’s cut out to be a Division I head coach. While this season has probably shown us that he’s cut out to be a Division I recruiter (though his years at Vermont already established that), he still has yet to show that he can lead a team to wins. We still don’t know what sort of expectations Athletic Director Ryan Bamford has for the team this season or for Micheletto, but I can’t image he’s happy with a losing record at the break and dwindling interest in a revenue producing sport on campus. While the students have brought a renewed energy to the Mullins Center and the new hockey band has been a nice boost to the atmosphere, it’s still concerning that UMass has the fourth worst attendance in Hockey East, despite their haughty record early on. And that fourth lowest is realistically worse considering UMass is above Providence and Merrimack, who are regularly maxing out their tiny arenas.
In the second half, Micheletto and the team have to find a way to win. There seemed to be a litany of reasons coming from the athletic department before the season and more recently of why we shouldn’t expect much from this team. They’re young. Yes, but there are 13 teams who are younger than UMass. Eight of them are currently ranked. They have a lot of underclassmen. Yes, with 19 freshmen and sophomores they certainly do. But does 8-8-0 Mercyhurst with their 21 underclassmen constantly point to that fact? How about #2 North Dakota with their 17 underclassmen? UMass has only played 6 games at home. Sure, the schedule was road-heavy early on. But Omaha has also only played 6 games at home and they are 12-3-1 on the season, despite 18 underclassmen on their roster!
Tomorrow night I’ll take a look a closer look at the road ahead for the Minutemen in the second half of the season. But they need to find a way to win games. They need to drastically improve from what we’ve seen in the last nine games. They need to improve even from what we saw in the first nine games when the team was beating up on the bad teams but looked completely out of their league against the really good teams on the schedule. Personally I think the talent is there to be better than two games under .500. I think the depth of talent is good enough to be better than that record too. The big question, again, is if the coaching is good enough to be a better team in the second half. Finishing .500 on the season would be significant achievement for this program considering it has been considered among the worst in the entire nation in recent years. If they can’t win just two more than they lose over these next 16 games under John Micheletto, then, in my opinion, it will be time this Spring to find someone new to take the reins of the program.
As mentioned, Wednesday night I plan to post a closer look at the second half schedule and the opportunities and challenges it presents for the Minutemen.
Former UMass captain Conor Sheary has been called up by the Pittsburgh Penguins and could make his NHL debut on Wednesday against the Bruins not too far from where the Melrose native grew up.
Northeastern is hosting Michigan State in men’s basketball, women’s basketball, and hockey this weekend. Matt Vautour of the Hampshire Gazette thinks such an scheduling agreement would be good for UMass. I agree, but UMass has always had a tough time getting teams like Minnesota and Michigan to come to Amherst. I’m not sure I see that changing at this point.