Two points. That’s all that separates a playoff team from a team on the outside looking in.
The Massachusetts hockey team finds itself in that precarious position heading into this weekend, as it sits in a tie for fifth place in the Hockey East Association standings, only two points clear of Northeastern, who is currently in a tie for eighth, but out of the playoff picture due to a tiebreaker.
The standings could look completely different after this weekend, when the Minutemen (4-5-2, 3-5-1 HEA) and Huskies (4-7-1, 2-6-1 HEA) square off in a crucial home-and-home series on Friday and Saturday night.
With only five points separating the third place team from the ninth place team, UMass can either continue its ascent up the crowded standings, or find itself in a spot that has become all too familiar to this team in years past, in the bottom portion of the conference.
“I think every time we step out there, no matter who it is and where they are, we got to take points,” UMass coach John Micheletto said. “So I don’t think that’s ever lost on our guys.”
After dropping their first three conference games, the Minutemen have turned things around, winning three of their last six games in conference play and accumulating points in four of them.
Much of the team’s late success can be attributed to the team’s strong special teams play. UMass boasts a 21.4 percent power play, good for second in the conference, and ranks fourth in penalty kill, with an 86 percent conversion rate.
“Coach Micheletto puts the right guys out there,” junior defenseman Joel Hanley said. “We’re taking it upon ourselves to move the puck quicker and get to pucks quicker. Special teams is huge in this league, so for us to be good on the power play is huge for us.”
While special teams are a key part in the success of a team, so is even strength hockey, something that the Minutemen have struggled at. UMass has only scored 15 even strength goals this season, which is near the bottom in both the conference and nationally.
“We’ve talked about generating more 5-on-5 goals,” Micheletto said. “You’re constantly trying to focus on and address things that might be a weakness for you, or something that you need to put a little more focus on.”
And even though the season is still young, UMass has faced a grueling opening schedule, with nine of its 11 games played against teams within the conference. Such a strong schedule can take its toll on a team, but the players are using it as a building tool and remain optimistic that it will help them in the long run.
“It gets us in the right mindset,” junior forward Conor Sheary said. “Out of conference is good to get exposure, but in conference is what counts for us and to get to the top of the standings. We need those points and to jump right into it is huge for us.”
The Minutemen cannot overlook the struggling Huskies though. While Northeastern sits at the bottom of the conference, it possesses a lot of strengths, many of which have faded significantly since getting off to a fast start.
The Huskies opened up conference play this year with two wins in their opening week, but have faltered recently, only accumulating one point in conference play since. They have managed to find the win column twice, but both were out of conference.
But the Minutemen are taking the same approach they have all season, stressing the importance of gaining points and not taking the opponent lightly.
“We understand that Northeastern is a dangerous team because they’re maybe not playing the way they did coming out of the gate,” Micheletto said. “You know that what’s possible and what they’ve proven in some other games in the past has not really been what’s going on in the recent history. The two points are always important, but we’re always stressing the process.”
That process is taking every game one at a time rather than looking forward to a two-game weekend and four very important potential points. UMass is preparing for Friday night’s game at home and not looking past a formidable opponent.
The first game of the two-game weekend series takes place Friday night at the Mullins Center. The puck will drop at 7 p.m. and the game can be seen on CBS3 Springfield Now. The two teams will face off Saturday in Boston at Matthews Arena.
Patrick Strohecker can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter at @MDC_Strohecker.