The Massachusetts hockey team has made its fair share of improvements this season, but perhaps the biggest of all is its special teams play.
Last year, the Minutemen struggled on both the power play and its penalty kill, finishing sixth in Hockey East with a power play percentage of 18.2 percent and ninth on the penalty kill at 76.1 percent.
But in UMass’ first 11 games this season, it has drastically improved in both areas. The Minutemen (4-5-2, 3-5-1 HEA) now boast the second-best power play percentage in Hockey East at 21.4 percent and the fourth best penalty kill at 86 percent.
The players credit the new system implemented by first-year UMass coach John Micheletto as a key reason for these improvements.
“Our system is definitely different,” junior forward Conor Sheary said. “We kind of go out there and make plays, there’s not much that we set in place. I think we have a lot of chemistry out there.”
Micheletto had experience working on special teams while he was an assistant coach at Vermont, where he switched off each year coaching the penalty kill and the power play.
He brought his special team’s philosophy along with him to the Minutemen, but as a coach, he said he has to play to the strengths of his current players.
“You’re always trying to identify the strengths of the players that you are working with,” Micheletto said. “It’s also just creating an air of creativity and constantly pushing your guys to not play with fear, which sometimes can be difficult on the power play. It can be such a momentum builder and it can also be a momentum crusher. “
So far, special teams have been a momentum builder for UMass. Twelve of the Minutemen’s 29 goals this season have been scored on the power play. They also scored twice on short-handed opportunities and once on a penalty shot.
Sheary has played a vital role in five of UMass’ power play goals and also knocked in a short-handed goal last Saturday in a 2-2 tie with Quinnipiac. He leads the Minutemen in power play points with five, all of which came on assists.
He attributed not only his own success on the power play, but the chemistry he has built on the man advantage with fellow juniors Troy Power and Michael Periera over the years.
“The chemistry is the biggest thing I think,” he said. “Me, Mike and Troy have been working together for a while now and I think we’re doing a good job.
“We’ve been working with pretty much the same unit, the same guys for three years now,” he said. “We had some more success last year than we did the year before and again this year we are obviously really clicking.”
Pereira and Power have also contributed to the much-improved power play. Pereira is tied for the team lead in power play goals with two and Power has three assists on the man-advantage.
Micheletto didn’t have any updates on the status of injured players Shane Walsh or Evan Stack Tuesday at practice.
Walsh did skate before the team took the ice, but Micheletto said he doesn’t know if either player will play this weekend.
“They are on the path towards recovery,” he said, “whether that will be Friday, Saturday or next weekend, I don’t know.”
The Minutemen play a home-and-home series with Northeastern this weekend starting on Friday at the Mullins Center.
Neither player has played since UMass’ 4-0 win against Providence on Nov. 9. Walsh’s injury is described as a lower-body injury, while Stack’s is an upper-body one.
Cameron McDonough can be reached at [email protected] and followed on twitter @MDC_McDonough.