Special teams to play a huge role for UMass hockey team in weekend pair

By Nick Souza

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Christina Yacono/Collegian

(Christina Yacono/Collegian)

Through the first seven games of the season, the Massachusetts hockey team and its opponents have combined for 116 called penalties and 254 total penalty minutes. That would make it seem pretty obvious that special teams have become a major factor in deciding games so far this season.

With UMass (2-4-1, 0-2-1 Hockey East) traveling to North Andover to face Merrimack on Friday, there appears to be little evidence of that changing this weekend.

Both the Minutemen and the Warriors (4-4-2, 0-1-2 HE) are at the top of the conference in power play attempts per game with each averaging just over seven.

Despite the possibility of special teams being a major part of this weekend’s games, UMass coach Greg Carvel is hoping that it starts to be a much smaller aspect of the game than what it has been thus far.

“Watching the games, I think the amount of penalties called is starting to dwindle,” Carvel said. “I hope both teams finish the game with a couple of power plays each. I think that’s how games should be decided. Special teams are important but they shouldn’t decide things.”

While the power play opportunities have been more abundant this season, the Minutemen have struggled to produce in that category with a power play that has scored on just 13 percent of its chances—ranking second worst in the Hockey East.

However, there has been an upward trend for UMass in power play production as it has scored at least one power play goal in the last four games.

“It’s nowhere near as effective as we need it to be, but it’s not like it’s completely devoid of creating any offense for us,” Carvel said.

Sophomore forward Austin Plevy has been one of the leaders for the Minutemen on the main advantage with four points (two goals, two assists) so far this season.

“I think the way the games are being called this year there have been a lot more penalties than usual,” Plevy said. “The power play and special teams is a huge part of the game, so if we can get two or three power play goals a game we’re going to be in a much better spot.”

While Merrimack may present that higher number of opportunities on Friday night, the second game of the week against Vermont at Mullins Center may give UMass the higher quality of chances.

The Catamounts (4-3-1, 1-2-0 HE) rank in the bottom third of the nation in penalty kill percentage and are also second worst in the conference with a percentage of 80 so far this season.

Coupled with the fact that the second game is at home, the Minutemen may be able to exploit this weakness, but Carvel is hesitant to have that mindset given UMass’ recent history.

“If our power play was one of the top five in the country, I might look at it that way,” Carvel said. “I think we’ll just work hard and hope to score a goal on the power play and we’ll be happy.”

One circumstance that could potentially hinder the already weak power play unit for the Minutemen this weekend will be the absence of senior Ray Pigozzi, who will likely be out due to an upper body injury.

While this is a challenge and has been through the early part of the season with Pigozzi already missing four games, Plevy is confident in his power play unit and teammates.

“It’s been tough with Pigozzi injured on our unit. We’ve had to adjust with a jumble of guys,” Plevy said. “It comes down to trusting your teammates and having a next man up mentality that no matter who it is they’ll come in and we’ll succeed and we’ll score on the power play.”

While coach Carvel, his team and surely the fans are hoping for fewer penalty calls and special teams to become a smaller part of the game, there is no denying the importance of it this weekend.

Nick Souza can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @nicksouza27.