Zac Jones steps up as a “difference maker” in UMass’ win over Providence

Zac Jones has three points in two playoff games

Nina+Walat

Nina Walat

By Evan Marinofsky, Assistant Sports Editor

Zac Jones is a sophomore for the Massachusetts hockey team, but due to COVID-19 cutting the 2019-20 college hockey season short, he entered this year’s dance with as much playoff experience as a freshman.

Judging off the way he played in UMass’ 5-2 win over Providence, Jones looked like a seasoned veteran.

“I thought Jones was outstanding,” UMass head coach Greg Carvel said via Zoom after the game. “He wanted to be a difference maker tonight and he was.”

Jones’ first time on the scoresheet in Wednesday night’s Hockey East semifinal came roughly 12 minutes into the first period.

After receiving the puck at the top of the blue line, the former third-round pick by the New York Rangers danced the blue line as he’s shown many times throughout his UMass career.

Jones waited out Providence forward Tyce Thompson just long enough to sneak the puck past his attempt at blocking the shot and saw the biscuit slip past Friars goalie Jaxson Stauber’s blocker to tie the game 2-2. That capped off a wild first 20 minutes of play.

“He’s been playing really good hockey lately,” Bobby Trivigno said of Jones after the win. “He’s really upping his offensive game. You could see he has confidence on the ice.”

The goal still wasn’t Jones’ most important play of the night.

A little over a minute into the second period, Providence sent the puck up the boards in its own zone for forward Brett Berard to corral and exit the zone with. There was only one problem for the Friars: As Berard when to grab the puck, he felt Jones pinching down the left wall, causing the Providence winger to bail out of the play and skate past Jones without the puck.

The Friars anticipated Berard to break out of the zone with the puck, so linemate Tyce Thompson and defender Ben Mirages were already behind Jones and near the top of the blue line when Jones began skating deeper into the zone.

That left a wide-open passing lane to Bobby Trivigno, which Jones astutely noticed. Trivigno blasted home a one-timer to make it 3-2 UMass.

It was the eventual game-winner.

“There was a little bit of risk involved,” Carvel said of Jones’ pinch. “If he doesn’t get that puck, it’s an odd-man rush the other way. He’s a kid you’ve got to let play. That’s what he did. As soon as the puck was on his stick, you knew if he got the puck over, it was going in.”

Jones finished the night with two points – a goal and an assist. In the quarterfinal win over Northeastern, Jones registered a lamplighter as well.

But that’s not a huge surprise. When Jones arrived at UMass, he was already one of the premiere offensive defenders in Hockey East. Carvel said after Wednesday’s win that he doesn’t teach Jones anything about the offensive side of the game. One could presume that’s due to Jones’ smooth skating ability, his quick wrister and his elite playmaking.

What has substantially grown is Jones’ defensive ability, and that was on display in the win over Providence. Jones and partner Matthew Kessel skated many shifts against Providence’s top-six. The duo consistently shut them down, with Kessel impeding scoring chances with his long reach and Jones using his quick foot speed and elusiveness to close in quickly on Friar forwards.

Kessel has always been known as a defensive dynamo. Jones, on the other hand, hasn’t.

“When Zac got here, he was not a great defensive player…But his defensive game has come a long way,” Carvel said after the game. “That’s all the coaching we really do here. It’s mostly defensive, playing without the puck. Zac’s very committed.

“They all want to play in the NHL. They don’t all have the ability that he has, but he matches it with a commitment to getting better.”

It’s no secret Jones will have his shot at a career in the NHL at some point–his rights belong to the New York Rangers, although his time at UMass will likely include another season.

“He’s still got a little ways to go to be ready for the next level,” Carvel said of Jones.

The offensive game is there. The defensive game appears to be almost there. Carvel mentioned before the start of the season that Jones needs to be able to “separate every person in the league from the puck at this level.” That’s on its way, too.

Jones has the rest of his career to worry about that stuff. For now, all UMass needs him to be is a difference maker.

And he seems to be doing quite a fine job of that.

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