Perhaps it was the nine-day break between games that allowed the players on the Massachusetts hockey team to clear their heads. But coming off the team’s first winning streak of the season, the Minutemen can finally see some of their most concerning statistical lines starting to sway in their direction.
UMass had been having trouble trying to stave off opponents during the penalty kill before last week’s two-game sweep of Quinnipiac and Vermont. Prior to those two meetings, UMass served up 13 goals in 44 opportunities, a 30 percent clip. UMass coach Don Cahoon called the struggling penalty kill the team’s Achilles heel, a recipe for disaster that needed to be remedied immediately.
During the Thanksgiving break, the Minutemen held strong by allowing only one goal in 10 penalty kills. The lone penalty kill goal surrendered was to Quinnipiac, 10 minutes and 31 seconds into the second frame, after the Minutemen had already taken a 4-0 lead. UMass won that game 5-2.
“We’re getting better positional play and better reads in terms of anticipating when to pressure and when not to pressure,” Cahoon said. “The experience that we’re getting for the younger players that are in that situation is invaluable. They unfortunately learned the hard way how you can break down in that situation. It’s not without need of work but in the recent pass it’s been much improved.”
The marked improvement during the penalty kill was a direct result of goalkeeper Paul Dainton and his impressive play in both games.
“It starts with goaltending,” Cahoon said. “He’s your most important penalty kill.”
Against UVM, it was the senior captain and his career-high 44 saves who patched a strong first period together, making way for his teammates to explode for three goals in the second and seize control of the first win of the season for UMass, 4-1.
Only two weeks ago, opponents were jumping all over the Minutemen in the first period, outscoring UMass 13-4, including 6-1 in the four-game stretch that preceded Thanksgiving week.
Players were starting games over exuberant, according to Cahoon, playing hard but not following through with assignments. This left the Minutemen constantly having to play catch up.
But these last two games saw a different start.
The Minutemen held both the Catamounts and Bobcats scoreless in the first frame. Instead, it was UMass taking advantage of early chances against Quinnipiac, breaking through for a 2-0 lead in the first period.
However, while UMass held Vermont scoreless until the third period, Cahoon thought the first period of that game might’ve been their worst period of the year.
“The first period wasn’t very good at all,” Cahoon said. “But Dainton saved our bacon. He had a great first period performance and it gave us a chance to make it a 40-minute game.”
Dainton finished the week with 69 total saves, stopping all but three of the 72 shots he faced. His clutch performance earned him the Pure Hockey Defensive Player of the Week Award. His week’s stat line was also highlighted by a 1.50 goal against average and a .958 save percentage.
The recent favorable swing in stats has the Mass Attack at 2-0 coming off its nine-day hiatus. If the recent success during the penalty kill and the first period continues, Dainton and the Minutemen can anticipate more wins to follow.
Pete Vasquez can be reached at [email protected]