Special teams play is a very important aspect of hockey that always seems to be the difference between winning and losing the game.
For the Massachusetts hockey team, that notion was never more true and a big reason why the team was able to skate away with a season-opening 4-1 win at home against Connecticut on Friday night.
“I think what was particularly strong of being man down, was the up-ice pressure and that’s really fed by our guys commitment to go 200 feet,” first-year coach John Micheletto said. “I think that is what really allowed us to get out and run with two forwards and disrupt their breakout and break-in opportunities, which minimizes the amount of time that we actually have to play PK in our own zone.”
The Minutemen went 7-for-8 on the penalty kill and 2-for-9 on the man-advantage over the course of the game.
The first goal that UMass scored against the Huskies came on the team’s first power play opportunity in the first period, when Colin Shea ripped a slap shot from the point to put the Minutemen up 1-0.
The lone time UMass was unable to successfully kill off a penalty came on the tying goal in the first period, when UConn’s Tyler Helton scored on a rebound that came off an odd-man rush, rather than a setup power play.
After that goal, UMass killed off the next six Huskies power plays, including five in the second period. The big kill came when UMass killed off a long 5-on-3 power play, a scenario that puts a lot of pressure on the penalty killers and a spot that is not usually practiced as much as a traditional 5-on-4.
“For a situation that we haven’t practiced a whole lot, I thought our guys did a fantastic job of holding our structure and blocking a lot of shots, that in any situation, helps out our goaltender tremendously,” Micheletto said.
Friday night’s game put a lot of pressure on special teams, with 18 power plays between the two teams, many of which came about because of the physical play on the ice.
“I think we just need to stay out of the scrums and be a little more disciplined in that area,” UMass forward Branden Gracel said. “Obviously eight penalties a game is not a goal of ours, so we got to cut down on that.”
With this being the first game of the season, special teams is not always as sharp as what teams want it to be, usually leading to a lot of mistakes and breakdowns, especially on the penalty kill. However, that is not the case for UMass, according to Micheletto.
“I think in the early part of the season, the penalty kill and goaltending have the advantage,” Micheletto said. “I think the offense and power play sometimes is something that needs to develop a bit more, so I don’t think it was a surprise to me.”
As for the power play, going 2-for-9 is not a bad percentage to maintain over the course of the season, but it was the shots and opportunities that the Minutemen did not capitalize on that has the team expecting more out of the unit.
“I thought there were better opportunities that we didn’t score on, than the ones that we did,” said Micheletto. “I was happy with our sets and our looks in the zone. I think we need to get more second and third shot opportunities in the zone.”
Taking 12 penalties that resulted in eight power plays for the Huskies is not something that UMass can be proud of, but killing off seven of them certainly is. However, with the team’s next game against defending national champion Boston College, emotions will certainly be running high. To maintain success, the rough, physical play after the whistle needs to get under control, and if not, the Minutemen will find itself down a man a lot and struggling to keep the Eagles’ high-powered offense off the scoreboard.
Patrick Strohecker can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter at @MDC_Strohecker.