In last night’s midseason review post I took a look at how the season has played out so far for the Minutemen, from their hot streak in October to start the season to the current nine game winless streak heading into winter break. Now it’s time to look ahead to the games remaining. The team is not trending well right now, but there’s still a lot of hockey to be played and with the team currently tied for seventh in Hockey East they’re still within striking distance of a number of achievements.
Finishing 5th through 8th in the conference means the Minutemen would host a first round playoff series, which is something they haven’t done since the playoff format changed with the additions of Notre Dame and UConn. At 6-8-4 overall the team has a chance to finish at .500 or above, something that hasn’t happened since the 2009-10 season. But it’s not going to be easy for the team to achieve either of those milestones and to do so they will need to snap out of this offensive funk they’re in very quickly.
After playing a road-heavy schedule in the first half of the season, playing just 6 of their 18 games at the Mullins, the Minutemen will play a majority (9 of 16) of their remaining games at home. They’ll also play another game a short drive away in Springfield at the Mass Mutual Center against AIC. That game against AIC will be part of a seven game stretch where they don’t leave Western Mass from January 22nd through February 12th. That’ll be a key string of games for the team. UMass will finish the season with three of their final four games on the road, with the last weekend being a home and home series against defending national champion and current top ranked Providence.
UMass may play more games close to home in the second half, but the strength of their schedule will remain tough. Looking at the KRACH rankings UMass is currently rated as the 30th team in the country, playing the 25th toughest schedule. If you take the average current KRACH rating of their first half opponents, it comes out to 26.4. Coincidentally, if you take the average current KRACH rating of the team’s opponents in the second half it also comes out to 26.4. However, the distribution of where the teams fall in the KRACH rankings differs for the first half and second half opponents. The teams UMass played in the first half were pretty evenly distributed through the spectrum. But in the second half you have a much bigger disparity between teams at the bottom of the KRACH rankings like AIC (60), Army (58), and Northeastern (50), and ones at the very top of the rankings. UMass will have to play nine of their 16 games in the second half against teams currently in the top 15 of the KRACH; Providence (3), Boston College ( 8), Yale (10), Lowell (13), and Boston University (15).
As mentioned in last night’s post, UMass did very well so far this season against bad teams, OK against average teams, and very poorly against the best teams in the country. In fact when you look at the average KRACH ranking of the teams they beat, it was 47.3. The average ranking of the teams they tied against was 27.8. And their losses came to teams whose average ranking was 10.1. If UMass performs similarly against those tiers determined by the KRACH they’d project to win only another 5 to 7 games and would likely finish with a season record around 11-17-6 or 13-17-4.
So the team will have to play better than they have in recent weeks and also be more competitive against the really good teams as well. They’ll have to figure out a way to grab at least a few wins from the top teams like BU or Lowell. Losing by a combined 13-1 score to BC and Yale has to be a thing of the past. The good news is opening the second half against Army on January 2nd should give the Minutemen a very good chance to put an end to the current winless streak they’re on and allow them to refocus on the tough task at hand. That tough task starts just three days after playing the Black Knights though when Yale visits the Mullins Center for a mid-week game.
There’s a lot on the line for the UMass squad in these next 16 games. Again, it would be a good sign if the Minutemen could stay out of the Hockey East basement and host a playoff game for the first time since 2007. Finishing at .500 would be a significant step forward. And of course if UMass made a run to finish in the top half of the league, something still a possibility considering their current place in the standings, that would signify a turnaround in the fortunes of the program. Also potentially on the line in these next 16 games is the job of UMass coach John Micheletto, who has won barely above a third of his games in his three seasons in Amherst.
Is the team playing for their coach’s job? Only Athletic Director Ryan Bamford knows that. But it wouldn’t take too much research from him to see where this program once was in the mid 2000s and where it is now. Plus he only needs to look around at the empty stands at home games to know that something needs to change. It’s hard to think that the team going from a 12th place team to a 10th place team is enough of an improvement to bring back the fans and draw the really good players to Amherst needed to succeed in Hockey East. But a winning record or some upsets of the nation’s top teams might do it. And UMass has a chance to do both with a good performance in these next 16 games.
As I write this post former Minuteman captain Conor Sheary is making his NHL debut against the Bruins just a short drive from his native Melrose. Sheary making it to the Penguins is a great story for UMass hockey. Here is an undersized player who was overlooked by the bigger schools when he was in prep school, including Boston College where his family had season tickets. He ends up coming to UMass, handles the coaching change midway through his career with class, goes on to become captain, stays all four years, gets his degree, and finishes his career 8th all time in points at UMass. And now he’s an NHL players.
Here’s an interview with Sheary from earlier this afternoon ahead of his debut.
Of course the other UMass alum in that game is Bruin Frank Vatrano. Kirk Luedeke recently wrote about how Vatrano is finding ways to contribute even when he doesn’t score on his Scouting Post blog.