UMass looking to limit defensive breakdowns after two losses to Boston College

Minutemen look to fix defensive issues ahead of matchup with Merrimack

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Chris Tucci/UMass Athletics

By Evan Marinofsky, Assistant Sports Editor

Since Day 1 of the 2020-21 season, the Massachusetts hockey team’s biggest strength is very clear: defense and goaltending.

The No. 8 Minutemen (1-2-1) boast the best goaltending duo in the country along with one of the deepest, most versatile backends in college hockey.

But UMass allowed 10 goals over the two losses to No. 2 BC this past weekend, which had head coach Greg Carvel mentioning the squad’s need to tighten up after each of the two games.

“Any time we broke down, BC is really opportunistic and took advantage,” Carvel said Tuesday via Zoom. “We gave up too many odd-man rushes, too many goals on the rush. That’s what we’re going to be working on this week.”

As was expected, BC proved to be a difficult challenge for the Minutemen. What’s most interesting about the matchup is their two very different strengths. The Eagles bring one of the most explosive and dynamic offenses to the table, while the Minutemen must beat the opposition defensively.

“My plan is we have to score three goals and we can’t give up more than two,” Carvel said. “I think we have enough offense to score three goals most nights. I think we’re good enough to prevent the other team from scoring three goals most nights. That’s the kind of season it’s going to be for us. The margin of error is not huge.”

BC will be the measuring stick for UMass all season since both teams will be vying to be Hockey East’s top dog.

Friday night’s 4-3 loss at BC was what Carvel called “the best we’ve ever played there”. During his media availability on Tuesday, he talked about how once he looked at the video, he saw lots of good things in his team’s game. But, the real defensive issues reared their head for the Minutemen in Saturday’s 6-3 loss.

BC’s third goal came off exactly what Carvel and the Minutemen are trying to avoid.

In this clip, Aaron Bohlinger, one of two freshmen on defense for UMass, brings the puck up ice and just over his own blue line. He tries to dish it to Oliver Chau skating through mid-ice, but fails to notice Eagles forward Mike Hardman jumping up to intercept the pass.

The real defensive zone breakdown comes in the second half of this play.

As Hardman stops and looks for someone to pass to, every UMass player is on an Eagle — there’s three 1-on-1s. But instead of staying with Colby Ambrosio, Chau stops and focuses on Hardman, leaving Ambrosio open in front of Filip Lindberg to get two high-danger chances, the second resulting in a goal.

“I think it was just the mental mistakes this weekend that killed us,” Zac Jones said Tuesday via Zoom. “Little breakdowns in the d-zone and in the neutral zone, that’s what cost our goals this weekend, that’s what caused BC to score 10 against us in two games.”

Another example of a breakdown came on BC’s fifth goal when Hardman blasted one past Lindberg.

The play begins with Matt Boldy entering the UMass zone cleanly and Jake Gaudet and Bohlinger trying to poke the puck away. When this happens, there’s five UMass players in the zone against two Eagles. Boldy puts the puck past Gaudet and Bohlinger, causing himself to get an extra second of separation.

As this is all taking place, Hardman sneaks into the slot and behind Chau and Carson Gicewicz. While both UMass forwards are caught puck-watching, they don’t pick up Hardman fast enough and he scores to make it 5-3. Five UMass players got beat by three from BC.

Both of the previously mentioned BC goals came off the rush. Their first on Saturday night also came on a 2-on-1.

“We knew their gameplan that they executed on a lot of our mistakes, especially off the rush,” Matthew Kessel said Tuesday via Zoom. “They’re a very skilled team and they were able to do that. Definitely something that we need to focus on more in practice these next few days for whichever opponent we play next.”

The Minutemen aren’t as strong as they normally are on defense due to losing two defensive regulars in Marc Del Gaizo and Ty Farmer. Both were lost in UMass’s second game of the season against UConn. Farmer is said to be out long-term while Del Gaizo remains out day-to-day, according to Carvel.

“It’s pretty odd this early in the season to be going through this,” Kessel said of losing Del Gaizo and Farmer. “We’ve had two injuries on the backend, so just shouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary. Just having the next guy step up and it takes everyone and takes the whole team to know their role.”

UMass will look to correct their defensive mistakes this Saturday when they take on Merrimack. Puck drop is slated for 4:30 p.m. from the Mullins Center.

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