Freshman Ray Pigozzi brought in to give UMass a winning formula
Winning seasons don’t come around regularly for the Massachusetts hockey team.
Since its resurrection in 1993, the program has finished with a winning record just four times—highlighted by a trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2007—and has never reached a Frozen Four or won a Hockey East championship.
This season has been no different. The Minutemen are tied for eighth place in the Hockey East standings, and at 7-16-4 have already clinched another losing season with just six games left.
Only in his second year behind the bench, UMass coach John Micheletto is aware of the program’s forgettable history. The only way to change it is through recruiting.
Bringing in talent helps. But what may be undervalued is the importance of recruiting players with a winning history, something Micheletto emphasized with his first freshman class.
Players such as Steven Iacobellis and Ray Pigozzi fit that mold, having won at both the junior and midget level, and have been key contributors for the Minutemen as first-year players this season.
Their familiarity with triumph could be an even bigger factor with UMass in the midst of a playoff push.
“They’re used to making pushes at the end of the year,” Micheletto said. “Young guys that have no history like some of the returning guys do, that’s always valuable down the stretch to maybe change the energy around this time.”
Pigozzi backed up his coach’s sentiment on Friday night, scoring a game-tying goal with 50.9 seconds left in regulation to lead the Minutemen to a 3-3 tie with Boston University after trailing 3-1 midway through the period.
A former Denver commit, Pigozzi has brought a unique element to UMass’ fast-paced, aggressive system this season. He’s a pass-first player with good vision and the ability to slow the game down, and his numbers can back up those traits.
The Evanston, Ill., native is fourth on the team with 11 assists and is tied for fifth in scoring with 15 points. He’s also boosted the Minutemen with a position change.
Pigozzi played center for the first time in his career on Dec. 30 and hasn’t moved since. Micheletto said that Pigozzi’s ability to distribute the puck made him more valuable in the middle than on the wing and has forced him to be more aggressive as a shooter as well as a passer.
“It’s definitely different,” said Pigozzi, who centers Michael Pereira and Troy Power on UMass’ unofficial second line. “It’s a completely different position and I haven’t played it at all in my life. I’ll do whatever the team needs.
“I got in there, our lines been playing pretty well and I’m starting to get more comfortable there, so it’s good.”
Although Pigozzi has scored just four goals this season, and only scored eight in 53 games with the USHL’s Chicago Steel last season, Micheletto still thinks he could be an efficient goal-scorer as well as an exceptional game-manager with the puck on his stick.
Pigozzi, however, isn’t too concerned about his scoring numbers.
“I always found myself to be more of a playmaker,” he said. “It’s always a good feeling to score. It’s not the end of the world if I don’t, personally, but it definitely feels good.
“I try to do both as much as possible,” he added. “But throughout my days of playing, I feel that’s been my strong suit is setting other guys up for their roles.”
Pigozzi’s role has made it easy for him to fly under the radar despite such a productive rookie season. While it’s not the most enjoyable of circumstances, it may have its benefits.
Opposing coaches are more apt to center their game plans around UMass’ known goal-scorers such as Conor Sheary, Pereira and Iacobellis, leaving Pigozzi free to surprise his opponents.
“I think him being a freshman as well and playing with guys on either wing in Mike Pereira and Troy Power, who are known commodities, people may pay a little bit more attention to them and might look off Ray a little bit, where hopefully that comes back to bite them in the rear end,” Micheletto said.
In the end, that means a better chance to win.
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.