UMass special teams shine in 3-1 win over Merrimack

Minutemen earn lots of chances on the man advantage in win over Warriors

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Chris Tucci/UMass Athletics

By Evan Marinofsky, Assistant Sports Editor

If there were fans behind the Merrimack net when Cal Kiefiuk received the puck with a wide-open net on a mid-second period power play, you most certainly would’ve seen them all begin to stand up.

And when Kiefiuk’s shot dribbled wide of the goaltender-less cage, you would’ve seen those fans put their hands to their head in disbelief and sit back down. Up until that point, the Massachusetts hockey team already had a 5-on-4 and a 5-on-3 power play, both situations resulting in lots of chances and no goals. It looked to be one of those night for No. 8 UMass (2-2-1).

But later in the period, UMass put together another showy passing play, this time from Kiefiuk to Oliver MacDonald to Marc Del Gaizo to Josh Lopina and into the back of the net to make it 1-0.

The Minutemen would go onto take Saturday night’s contest 3-1.

“I would’ve liked to have seen the puck move a little quicker, faster, but we got a lot of pucks to the net, a lot of chances,” UMass head coach Greg Carvel said of the power play in the win. “That was really good execution on the goal. A lot of guys involved in that rush, a good tic-tac-toe, move the puck around…It took three or four really heads up plays and then a nice finish.”

Going 1-for-4 on the power play is by no means a banner night. But for the Minutemen who struggled mightily last season on the man advantage, what’s taken place through five games has been a huge upgrade.

In 2019-20, UMass ranked No. 55 out of 60 teams in Division I for its power play, as they converted only 12.3 percent of the time. The 2020-21 campaign currently has them 22.7 percent.

“I’ve been really happy with the power play,” Carvel said. “Happy in practice all week, in the games I think that we’ve got two pretty good units. We’ve got a good gameplan and we’re not doing anything special. We’re just trying to do the basics really well and get pucks to the net and get the puck back.”

UMass spent most of its power plays Saturday night with constant pressure in Merrimack’s offensive zone, registering eight total shots on the man advantage.

In the other aspect of special teams, UMass’ penalty kill did its job, too. UMass only took two penalties and allowed one shot combined in both situations.

“Good to see us only get two penalties,” Carvel said. “Our penalty kill has been pretty solid, luckily didn’t have to test them too much tonight.”

The Minutemen’s penalty kill has been stout this season. In 19 kills, UMass has only given up a power play goal once.

Their strategy on Saturday night was simple, and one that’s worked throughout this season: hold onto the puck, keep possession for as long as possible and ice it.

That’s evident in this clip, as the four Minutemen keep possession of the puck, enter the zone and let it go. That sequence alone killed 24 seconds off a penalty. They had many more just like this.

Carvel wasn’t surprised at the number of penalties Merrimack took given how short their bench was. The Warriors played Saturday night’s game with only three lines of forwards. It was also their first game of the season.

“Again, when the other team is gassed, it’s the way it should be,” Carvel said of the penalties. “You’re at an advantage, you’re playing a team that’s trying to get their feet under them.”

UMass will look to continue its solid special teams play Sunday afternoon when they face Merrimack again. Puck drop is slated for 4:30 p.m.

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