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UMass silences questions about January play

hockBDespite a No. 15 ranking and a 10-5-0 record after a recent three-game skid, the Massachusetts hockey team faced questions about how the team would do come January, even before winter break began.

As UMass’ (14-8-0, 9-6-0 Hockey East) winter break comes to a close with a three-game winning streak and a hold on third place in the Hockey East standings, the questions were silenced.

It’s been well-documented that over the past couple of years that the month of January has been a sort of Achilles’ heel of the team, often sending them into a downward spiral for the rest of the season. In 2008 and 2009 combined, the Minutemen managed to go 2-9-3 in January, and 9-13-0 in the following months.

The first month of 2010 did not start out any differently as the team began with two losses at Boston University, 7-3, and at New Hampshire, 7-2. Coupled with a 4-1 loss to Bentley in the championship game of the UConn Hockey Classic, and the three-game skid before winter break, UMass was 2-6-0 in eight games.

It almost appeared as if what many deem the annual January collapse was beginning even earlier; but a closer look at the losses, combined with a home-and-home sweep over sister school UMass-Lowell, told a different story.

Its three-game losing streak before break came to three top 15 teams, with two of the losses coming on the road. The box score for the loss to Bentley shows the Minutemen dominating the game in almost every aspect, but a 42-save performance by the Falcons’ Kyle Rank was enough to stop the Minutemen.

Then there were the two multiple-goal losses to the Terriers and the Wildcats. BU is still the defending national champions, despite a poor first half to the season, and the Terriers are known for being a second-half team. UNH lost just once – to then-No. 4 Cornell on Jan. 3 – since UMass took one back in overtime on Nov. 13.

For No. 19 UMass coach Don Cahoon, the losses were due to a lack of focus, not an annual January collapse. Though, the team was well-aware of its past struggles during the month.

“It’s very much on every ones’ minds, but we’re trying to put the focus on the performance and the execution, rather than all the things that are being said that really don’t have really influence on our performance or execution,” Cahoon said at practice before the Minutemen took on No. 15 UML.

Cahoon has seen his team regain its focus, as it responded to a three-game losing streak by winning three in a row, propelling the squad into third place in the conference standings.

“I think that there was a consistent physicality where guys finished checks,” Cahoon said of UMass’ 4-1 win at Northeastern, the first win of the streak. “We didn’t go out of our way to take penalties. It wasn’t excessively forceful, but every time someone touched the puck, we finished the play that we started.”

After the win at Northeastern and the home-and-home sweep of the River Hawks, the Minutemen have begun to take steps toward building an identity for themselves, and helped avoid the collapse they feared.

“[The most difficult thing a coach does] is to lead the team in a direction where they establish what their identity is,” Cahoon said. “That is what most coaches are searching for endlessly.

“The question is always, when the game is over what did [the outside world] see, and what did they say. And, when it can be a consistent response, then you know the team has figured out what their identity is.”

For Cahoon, talk of a collapse did not benefit his team. The coach believes the team needs to look ahead and regain focus.

“We just have to move forward. We’ve got to put it aside. It does us absolutely no good for us to talk about it,” Cahoon said before sweeping UML. “That’s for the media, for the people, for the naysayers. We don’t have time for it. It doesn’t solve anything for us. You guys can talk about it until you’re blue in the face. We’ve got to solve it with performance and execution.”

After the past week’s play, it’s clear the Minutemen have moved forward, ignoring any thoughts of a collapse and focusing on their play instead.

Jeffrey R. Larnard can be reached at jlarnard@dailycollegian.com.

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