January 27, 2015

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UMass hockey kicks off second half at UConn Hockey Classic

The tale of the first half of the Massachusetts hockey team’s season could be told in three very unique chapters.

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

In the first chapter, the Minutemen were an every-other-weekend team over four weeks. They went winless in the first and third weekends of the season, while earning points in both games of the second and fourth weeks. In that time, they got major production from the power play while freshmen Steven Iacobellis and Ray Pigozzi quickly emerged as immediate impact players alongside veteran Troy Power on the second line.

The second chapter – the longest of all – was easily the most forgettable of UMass’ season thus far. The Minutemen went winless in eight straight games from November into early December, and lost goaltender Steve Mastalerz due to injury for three of those games.

The third is one UMass probably wishes was a little longer. The Minutemen won three of their last four games before the holiday break, including a weekend sweep at Colgate, and got its best penalty killing performance of the season in that stretch.

On Thursday, UMass began preparing for that next stage of the 2013-14 season, as it had its first official practice following the holiday break in preparation for the UConn Hockey Classic, which begins Sunday at 4 p.m. against No. 8 Quinnipiac at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn.

After a long layoff between games, UMass coach John Micheletto is more than happy to return to doing what he loves.

It’s great. You don’t get into coaching for the offseason, or for vacation,” Micheletto said. “They’re always a necessary part of the job, but it’s always a good day to have the team back and to have them excited about seeing each other. We’re looking forward to the second half.”

The second half of the season hasn’t been good to the Minutemen (6-12-2) in recent history, and last year was a prime example of that.

UMass went winless in eight of its final 10 games last year and slipped out of the eighth and final Hockey East playoff spot on the last weekend of the season, leaving them out of the postseason for the first time since 2002.

But after such a difficult November, Micheletto is hopeful that the worst is already behind his team.

“It’s a matter of generating your own energy and belief and confidence down the stretch,” he said. “When the games get to be the tightest, I like to think that we have battled through some of those things in the month of November so that we have learned our lesson and are a little more battled tested in that way coming down the stretch.”

Three things Micheletto would like to see from the Minutemen in the second half is more consistent five-on-five play, an improved penalty kill and better discipline.

UMass is averaging just 2.05 goals per game, which includes a power play that’s converting on 22 percent of its extra-man opportunities. The penalty kill, on the other hand, owns just a 78.7 percent success rate, which is significantly below average when compared to an elite team like the Bobcats (13-3-3), who are killing off 90.9 percent of their penalties.

But the Minutemen see the opportunity in front of them. Last season, they got a taste of what winning a championship was like when they won the Ledyard National Bank Classic at Dartmouth. This year, Micheletto would like to see his team, especially the freshman who weren’t there last year, have similar success this season.

“The older guys have already been talking about it amongst themselves, but the newcomers are guys that we want to embrace that philosophy,” Micheletto said. “It’s important to learn how to do that on back-to-back nights.

“To take the NCAA basketball survive and advance phrase, it’s really important. As much as we can practice doing those things and be successful at it, I want our guys to experience that.”

The Minutemen, however, will face quite the challenge. This is the same Quinnipiac team that crushed UMass 6-1 on Nov. 30, holding it to just 10 shots for the game.

Both teams may be a little rusty coming off the break, so Micheletto said the game will come down to which team is more well-conditioned for what could seem like a grueling weekend.

“The team that can quickly discipline themselves to get back into midseason form is gonna have the advantage going into the weekend,” he said.

UMass will play either Sacred Heart or Connecticut on Monday depending on the results of its own game as well as the second game on Sunday.

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

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