Staring in the face of a four-game losing streak, the Massachusetts hockey team has some questions to be answered.
Those issues, however, do not appear to be relative to how the Minutemen (9-12-5, 5-10-4 Hockey East) finish games, but how it starts them.
In its last three contests, UMass has struggled to come out of the gates strong, facing early deficits each time and having to dig itself out of a hole.
In Saturday’s 4-3 loss to No. 4 Merrimack, the Minutemen failed to take a lead once as the Warriors (15-6-5, 11-5-3 HEA) jumped out to its first lead of the night only three minutes, 25 seconds into the game, and would respond to the UMass equalizer just 20 seconds after the game was knotted up.
“If you look at that first period [Merrimack] was getting some real good chances off long passes with bumps to the guys coming with speed through the middle of the rink,” said UMass coach Don Cahoon. “They do that really well and it’s a strong side to their offensive attack.
“The thing I thought we did well was we made an adjustment halfway through the first period,” Cahoon added. “We adjusted our forecheck and center-zone play when they had the puck, and we just made a mess of it for them.”
Although the Minutemen never trailed by more than a goal throughout the contest, it is starting to become a bad habit that the team cannot afford to develop, especially in the final weeks of the regular season with the final conference tournament spots still up for grabs and UMass on the outside looking in.
Just the night before (Feb. 3) in a 4-3 overtime loss to Northeastern, the Minutemen found itself staring at a 2-0 deficit a mere 6:27 into the game. Although UMass came back and tied the game, spending most of the game playing catch-up is not something that has been producing wins as of late.
“The first 10 minutes of the game [against Northeastern] were pretty bleak from my perspective,” said Cahoon. “Our net-front defense was non-existent and our guys were just cruising around. [Northeastern] was winning all the sprints, all the battles and it looked like it was going to be a really long night.”
This negative trend began in Lowell (Jan. 28) when the Minutemen found itself trailing 2-0 after the first period, and saw the River Hawks soar to the 5-2 triumph.
Since then, it has been an ongoing search for UMass to find its rhythm at the beginning of games.
“The issue is you have to play in your own zone,” said Cahoon. “We are too intimate in our own zone.
Special teams holding fort
One thing the Minutemen can feel positive about during this recent slide is its effort on special teams.
Over the last four games, all of which have been losses, UMass has scored on four out of 11 power play opportunities (36.3 percent), including a 2-for-2 night on the man-advantage against UMass Lowell (Jan. 27).
The penalty killing has been especially strong for the Minutemen, as it has only allowed its opponents to capitalize on the man-advantage four times out of 20 opportunities (20 percent).
What may arguably be the most encouraging thing for UMass to take out of this past weekend is the gradual decrease in penalty minutes.
In both the loss to the Huskies and Merrimack, the Minutemen spent less time in the penalty box than its counterparts, and in the process only let one shot find the back of the net in the game against Northeastern, while shutting out the Warriors’ power play effort.
It should also be mentioned that Merrimack’s power play unit is the same one that went 4-for-8 in a weekend series with Maine the week before.
That is the most one can really take from a troublesome stretch for UMass as it looks to find its way back in the mix in the HEA race down the stretch, which starts with No. 3 Boston University this Friday at 7 p.m. at Agganis Arena.
Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Canelas.