McCarthy: What does UMass hockey need to do to repeat in 2022?

Cleaning up a few mistakes will pay dividends for the Minutemen

Collegian+File+Photo

Collegian File Photo

By Colin McCarthy, Assistant Sports Editor

With only four regular season games remaining, it’s still unclear exactly what the realistic postseason expectations should be for the Massachusetts hockey team this year.

No. 10 UMass (17-10-2, 12-6-2 Hockey East) showed glimpses of a team that can dominate in the NCAA tournament. But it has also shown signs of weakness against inferior opponents, and the combination of those two leaves more questions than answers. Especially after last season where there were no questions by this point in the year. The Minutemen were rolling.

They hit a turning point coming out of a COVID-19 pause to crush Providence and then knock off the No. 1 ranked Boston College three days later. After that came a stretch of dominance and the question became less about when they would lose in the postseason and more about if they would.

This year has been much harder to pin down. Make no mistake, UMass has massive potential and could march all the way into Boston to defend its national championship in the Frozen Four. But there are some things it needs to figure out before it can get there.

How much depth do the Minutemen have?

At times this Minutemen group looks like one of the deepest in Hockey East, but at this point in the season the bottom-6 forward group needs to come together with consistent lines and make a positive impact on the ice.

As of now there are three fairly obvious lines. Anthony Del Gaizo and Eric Faith have shifted around within the groups, but it’s clear who the best nine forwards are. That fourth line is where things get tricky.

In UMass’ last game against UConn, Minutemen coach Greg Carvel did not have the confidence to roll out his fourth line. Oliver MacDonald, Ryan Sullivan and Jerry Harding spent most of the game riding the bench. The group’s only shift of the last two periods came when Ryan Lautenbach was injured and needed time before returning to the ice.

UMass has six legitimate candidates for that bottom forward line; Taylor Makar, Cam Donaldson and Matt Baker have all had their moments, as have Sullivan, Harding and MacDonald. It’s hard to play an entire postseason with three forward lines. Carvel will eventually put out the group that he trusts the most, and those players need to not just have flashes of excellence, they must sustain it.

Odd-man rushes need to be fixed

It seems like at least once per game an opposing forward gets to skate in alone on Matt Murray or in a 2-on-1 against a lone Minutemen defender. And in the postseason that just can’t happen anymore.

There are positives and negatives to aggressive play by defensemen while in the attacking zone, but odd-man rushes have become a lingering issue. Luckily Matt Murray has been able to turn away a fair amount of them, but it’s difficult to expect any goalie to make those saves consistently.

Carvel has talked a lot lately about “staying above” and not getting caught pinched too low to avoid these odd-man rushes. If the Minutemen don’t minimize those chances soon it could cause problems, but luckily there is an easy fix: stay above.

Special teams need to remain strong

Special teams success is what separates UMass from other teams in college hockey. Its power play unit is top notch, and its penalty kill has been impressive for a few years now. At their best the Minutemen have won games thanks to the strong situational play, but it’s apparent if they aren’t firing on all cylinders.

Again, this isn’t a major area of struggle. But the UConn series brought up a bit of weakness and that was certainly one. On Saturday the power play had good chances but couldn’t convert any opportunities including a lengthy 5-on-3. The penalty kill also gave up three goals in two games and hasn’t been nearly as bright as in years past. It is still an effective group, but not as noticeable as last year’s unit that gave opposing teams a great deal of trouble on every possession.

Getting back that quality special teams play is one of the most crucial aspects in bringing the Minutemen back to the Frozen Four.

Can Murray handle the full time workload in net?

For what it’s worth, in my opinion the answer to this question is yes.

But there are questions about it. Murray hasn’t needed to play in this many games in one season over his five year career at UMass. He has already started 28 games this year, beating his previous season high of 27 appearances. During his last two seasons combined he only played in 34 contests, a number he is likely to surpass this season alone.

Murray started the season very strong but has had a few struggles in recent games. In the Minutemen’s game against UConn on Saturday, the graduate student allowed four goals and only came up with 13 saves. A similar stat line appeared in UMass’ 6-3 win against LIU, a game where the only aspect not dominated by the Minutemen was their goaltending.

There’s no doubt Murray can handle postseason pressure and he’s more than proven his ability in net, but UMass needs him to be an anchor if it wants to make another long postseason run.

Colin McCarthy can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @colinmccarth_DC.