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Thursday, June 18, 2015

UMass hockey looks for fresh start at Notre Dame this weekend

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

The atmosphere was energetic before Massachusetts hockey practice this Tuesday. Music was blaring, players were engaged in highly competitive games of ping-pong and even UMass coach John Micheletto was cracking jokes. It looked like a team ready for a fresh start.

The Minutemen just endured their worst month in the Micheletto era in November. They went 1-6-2 for the month, capped off by a seven-game winless streak that included a 9-0 beatdown at the hands of New Hampshire on home ice Nov. 9 and Saturday’s 6-1 loss at Quinnipiac, where they were held to just 10 shots on goal.

But that’s in the past now. The calendar has flipped, the Movember mustaches have been shaved off and UMass is looking for a more positive December.

“The start of the new month kind of gives us a fresh page, clear consciences, we got rid of our mustaches, it’s a new beginning for us so we gotta leave (November) behind us,” senior forward Conor Sheary said.

The Minutemen (3-10-2, 1-6-2 Hockey East) have also taken a new approach to practice, going back to the basics and simply trying to have fun.

“This week we’ve just been focusing on the things that we enjoy and the things that we love to play for,” redshirt junior Troy Power said. “We had a great practice, had a lot of fun. It cleared our minds and hopefully we’ll get off to a good start this month.”

The Minutemen’s first shot at a turnaround comes Friday at 7:35 p.m. in South Bend, Ind., for the start of a weekend series against No. 13 Notre Dame in the first meeting between the two teams as Hockey East foes.

The Irish (9-6-1, 2-3-1 HEA) joined Hockey East this season after 21 years in the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association and are the first team outside of New England to join the conference since its inception, meaning UMass will take a rare plane ride for a conference game.

Although it’s a unique opportunity for the players, who have never had such an experience before, the Minutemen are aware of the challenge that Notre Dame – an annual NCAA Tournament contender and last year’s CCHA Tournament champion – will present.

“We’re gonna go into a place that I’m assuming is a really cool place to play,” Power said. “From what I hear, it’s gonna be a pretty packed barn and Notre Dame is a very good hockey team. I know we’re excited to get in there, but it’s a business trip and we’re going there with the intention to take points and that’s what we need to do.”

The transition hasn’t been easy for the Irish, however. They’ve been mediocre at best in conference play this season – they’re eighth in the conference standings heading into the weekend – and are coming off a non-conference loss to Hockey East foe Northeastern on Saturday.

Micheletto was an assistant at Vermont in its transition to Hockey East in 2005-06, so he understands the challenge in moving to such a highly competitive conference. He said the biggest adjustment for Notre Dame this season is traveling to new locations for road games, all of which require plane rides to places such as UMass Lowell, where it was swept earlier this season.

The other challenge, of course, is adapting to a new style of play.

“I’m sure they’re understanding that we play a little bit differently in terms of the Hockey East league teams than the CCHA teams did,” Micheletto said. “So as they make the adjustment I’m sure they’re gonna continue to maximize what they do well and just adapt a little bit better to Hockey East.”

If the Minutemen want to have success this weekend, they’ll have to solve senior goaltender Steven Summerhays, who holds a 1.73 goals against average and .936 save percentage in 15 games this year.

With UMass’ goal-scoring troubles as of late, that certainly won’t be easy. The Minutemen are averaging just 1.80 goals per game this season, which is 10th out of 11 Hockey East teams and have scored one goal or fewer in five of their last seven games.

Micheletto attributed these struggles to a lack of aggressiveness on the offensive end following the defensive debacle against UNH. But if UMass is going to get the kind of results it’s hoping for in December, it knows it’ll have break out of this funk – fast.

“I think we need to get grittier as forwards around the net in the scoring zones, I think we need to win more battles on the wall, especially in the offensive zone and I think a lot of times when we’re getting pucks in we’re unable to sustain enough pressure that allows us to break defenses down,” Power said.

Added Sheary: “It’s a bad rut for us. We have guys who can score on this team, we’ve shown it in the past, so it’s just something that’ll come. We’ve gotta have chemistry on our lines and get to know each other on the ice and I think it’ll come.”

Nick Canelas can be reached at ncanelas@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.

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