UMass building the best penalty kill in college hockey

Try getting a shot through against UMass’ penalty kill.

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Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Evan Marinfosky, Collegian Staff

The most consistent part of the Massachusetts hockey team’s game right now is its penalty kill.

There’s no denying it either. UMass (4-1, 0-1 Hockey East) leads the NCAA in penalty killing percentage, as they’ve gone a perfect 26-for-26 while shorthanded through the first five games.

While much of the Minutemen’s game has been inconsistent in the start of the new season, including their ability to stay out of the penalty box, killing those penalties off has been a huge point of strength.

“We continue to be as aggressive as we can be and try and make it uncomfortable for their power play,” head coach Greg Carvel said. “If you just sit back and let them try to execute what they want to do, it’s probably in their favor. So, we try to be real smart and be as aggressive as possible and again, try to make the game uncomfortable for the other team.”

Carvel’s analysis was spot on when the Minutemen’s penalty kill was tested in last Friday’s 4-1 win over American International.

Just 54 seconds after Anthony Del Gaizo was given five minutes for a contact to the head penalty, Zac Jones headed off for a cross-check. Everyone inside the Mullins Center knew the 5-on-3 would be a turning point — it just came down to which side it would end up favoring.

When the 120 seconds of the two-man advantage passed, the Minutemen had put on a clinic of how to handle a 5-on-3. And then they killed off the rest of Del Gaizo’s five-minute major, continuing their dominance remaining a man down.

The entire sequence encapsulated all the qualities that have made the Minutemen elite shorthanded.

“I don’t know if there’s any sort of strategy as much as you have to put the guys on the ice who are willing to block shots,” assistant coach Ben Barr said of 5-on-3s in general. “Colin [Felix] blocked shots, Ty [Farmer] blocked shots. I think there were a couple of other guys – [Bobby] Trivigno blocked a shot. When you have the guys that are willing to do that, you have a chance to kill that off. You put yourself down 5-on-3, you’re not playing the odds really well there. But we got away with it there and I give those guys a lot of credit.”

From the time the 5-on-3 began to when Del Gaizo’s disqualification ended, Felix had blocked two shots. Both came while the other team had two extra guys out there and both blocks led to Felix clearing the puck, allowing for fresh UMass legs to hop on the ice. One came on a point-blank AIC chance from the slot.

Farmer and Niko Hildenbrand also had important blocks. Jake McLaughlin’s stick seemed as if it was in the middle of every possible AIC passing lane.

The main facet of UMass’ penalty kill is what Carvel alluded to – aggressiveness.

“We’ve had a similar mindset as last year, we’re maybe just a little more aggressive and our D have made really good reads,” assistant coach Jared DeMichiel said. “And it’s still not perfect, but I think we’ve made good strides and we’ve been lucky where some freshmen have kind of grasped it pretty fast and then obviously it rolls through the rest of the team.

“But it’s maybe a little bit more aggressive at certain points on the ice and the guys have bought into it.”

In the sequence against AIC on Friday, the aggressiveness was everywhere. Only seconds into the 5-on-3, freshman defensemen Matthew Kessel stepped up at the point, poked the puck out of the zone, and switched off for fresh legs.

A freshman defenseman had the confidence to step up and make a gutsy play at the point during a pivotal point of the game.

Pretty much says it all, right?

Every zone entry by AIC was contested by the Minutemen, which feeds into the biggest thing UMass wants to establish on their penalty kill.

“On our penalty kill, we want to dictate the play and obviously they have one more player on the ice than us, but we’ll show pre-scouts of what teams want to do and we just talk about ‘hey this is what they want to do and this is how we want to handle it and how we want to control it and how we want to dictate it,’” DeMichiel said. “Obviously there’s good individual players and really good power plays and things like that and you maybe tinker or what not, but we feel like a lot of it’s more on us and how we want to impose our will on them on the PK.

“Make it more about us and less about them,” DeMichiel continued.

After UMass’ 3-1 loss at Northeastern earlier this month, Carvel explained that John Leonard and Oliver Chau asked to be on the penalty kill. With the way things have played out this season on the shorthand, it seems as if it’s all hands on deck.

“I think just being able to contribute in every situation in the games,” Chau said. “This summer I wanted to think about what I could do to contribute to the team more and I think that’s one area where I could help the team win.”

More offensive guys on the penalty kill has resulted in better results – for the team and for their own careers.

“It’s also important for their development,” Barr said of guys like Leonard and Chau joining the penalty killing units. “Hopefully someday when they’re not here, John Leonard is a San Jose Sharks draft pick, our goal is to hopefully have him be at that point and the more versatile he is as a player, that’s going to help him. He might not be the leading scorer in the NHL someday, but if he can kill penalties, and then work his way up to being a top-nine, top-six guy, that might be what gets him in the lineup at that level.”

In the dire penalty killing scenario against AIC, UMass used 12 different skaters to help kill off Del Gaizo and Jones’ penalties. All five defensemen saw time on the penalty kill.

Even with those incredible depth numbers, the Minutemen are anticipating adding even more skaters to the list of guys willing to go against a team with a man-advantage.

“We haven’t used our freshmen a ton and we feel like our freshmen, the second half of the year and even here moving into November, we’d like to integrate them more into the PK,” DeMichiel said. “A lot of these guys killed penalties in junior hockey and we’d like them to kill penalties here.”

It seems like every guy on the roster could be killing penalties come the end of the season.

It surely wouldn’t surprise anyone. 

Evan Marinofsky can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @emarinofsky.