A tumultuous winter recess is in the rearview mirror for the Massachusetts men’s hockey team.
After dropping five straight throughout the break, which UMass coach Don Cahoon attributed to shoddy special teams play, the Minutemen swept UMass Lowell in a home-and-home series last weekend, taking them to seventh in the Hockey East.
“It’s always a relief when you win,” Cahoon said. “The anxiety associated with losing is far greater than the thrill of winning.”
The UMass (5-11-3, 4-6-3 Hockey East) power play and penalty kill heated up against the River Hawks, and should that continue, the Minutemen have a good chance for two victories this weekend when they travel to Vermont for games on Friday and Saturday.
The Catamounts (4-12-4, 2-8-3 Hockey East) are coming off a 2-0 defeat against Northeastern and currently rank ninth in the conference. The strongest aspect of their game is during even strength play, where Vermont does not easily allow goals.
“Trying to crack their 5-on-5 defense is going to be a challenge,” Cahoon said. “It could be one of the tell-tales over the course of the weekend if we can score a few even strength goals.”
Scoring power play goals and killing off penalties could also determine how the weekend fares for the Minutemen. For the season, UMass’ conversion rate on the power play stands at 16 percent, but it has done much better recently, scoring a power play goal in each of its last five games. The Minutemen’s penalty kill has also been more effective of late, killing 15 straight penalties.
With a roster comprised mostly of freshmen, UMass’ special teams needed time to gel.
“[Gaining] experience, the constant practice at a high level, the comprehension of young players in both groups have [made for improvement] on special teams,” Cahoon said. “The players are beginning to conceptualize and [execute].”
The weekend was also made much easier as the Burlington Free Press announced on Wednesday that Vermont’s leading scorer, senior Wahsantiio Stacey, quit the team. Stacey led the team in goals and points, with nine and 15, respectively, in 17 games.
The Minutemen, on the other hand, are happy to see one of their main cogs, senior Michael Lecomte, back from injury. Lecomte has played in just five games this season, scoring two goals and adding an assist. Cahoon has been placing him on the same line with talented freshmen Michael Pereira and Conor Sheary. Pereira leads the team with eight goals and 17 points in 18 games, while Sheary has three goals and four assists.
“Michael is a guy that has a wealth of experience and he’s played in a lot of big-time situations,” Cahoon said. “I’ve put him with two talented freshmen that have great potential and [Lecomte] settles them down and gives them assurance about positionally where they need to be.”
Cahoon is well aware of the talent his team possesses and he knows that success will come with more experience and maturation. With things seemingly beginning to click for the Minutemen, the rest of the season could produce more wins than losses.
“[The players] are gaining experience and learning to play together,” Cahoon said. “When these kids first start off they’re all individuals, and as much as you try to get them to work together, all they have to reference is their own individual game. As we practice and act as a unit, they begin to make themselves part of the whole system.”
Steve Levine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.