McCarthy: What to make of UMass hockey’s series split against Merrimack

Minutemen split first Hockey East series with Merrimack

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Dylan Nguyen/ Daily Collegian (2022)

By Colin McCarthy, Assistant Sports Editor

NORTH ANDOVER — The Massachusetts hockey team is off to one of its best starts ever, but that doesn’t make it immune to tough losses, and Saturday’s game is proof of that.

No. 5 UMass (5-1-1, 1-1-0 Hockey East) let up a late empty net goal to Merrimack before losing to the Warriors (4-3-0, 2-1-0 HEA) in overtime. Despite being in the top five of most major statistical categories across college hockey, the Minutemen are still facing some growing pains to start the year. Here are a few takeaways from a wild weekend of UMass hockey.

No such thing as an “easy” Hockey East game

The biggest takeaway from this series is that HEA games are still as tight as ever, and that won’t change anytime soon.

Merrimack and UMass know each other very well. They met four times last season alone, and all of those matchups were decided by one goal. That’s what HEA play brings, and it’s important to manage expectations for these matchups.

Warriors coach Scott Borek had a clear game plan going into Friday’s matchup to take away the Minutemen’s skilled defensemen in the neutral zone. That frustrated UMass for two periods and it’s something that Merrimack was able to execute well thanks to its familiarity with Greg Carvel’s system. Denver is overall a better team than Merrimack by a wide margin, but the Warriors kept the series closer because they knew exactly what to expect. On Saturday it was more of the same, and that contributed to the series split.

HEA games are going to be tight throughout the year, especially considering the strength of the conference this season. I don’t see UMass blowing out too many conference opponents this season.

UMass has face off depth, but no true No. 1 option

At the end of the first period on Saturday, the Minutemen had two centers above 80 percent at the dot. Lucas Mercuri was a perfect 8-for-8, and Josh Nodler was 5-for-6. They cooled off by the end of the game, but all four centers finished the night winning at or above 50 percent of their face offs.

That’s a huge deal, and UMass is in the top 10 nationally in face off win percentage. But the hole left behind by Josh Lopina is still there, and it shows up in must-win situations.

Merrimack was able to tie Saturday’s game in the final minute by winning an offensive zone face off, and Carvel was not pleased about it. Last year, any time the Minutemen got into that situation, Lopina came off the bench to win those draws. He almost always delivered for UMass, and not having that consistency down the stretch proved costly.

UMass’ power play is great, but it’s penalty kill is better

The Minutemen are currently No. 1 in the nation on the power play, and they’re No. 4 in penalty kill percentage – although two teams ahead of them have only gone on the PK three times. But if you dive deeper into the numbers, I think their penalty kill has been much more impressive through seven games.

UMass has only allowed one power play goal in 22 attempts. And that lone goal came via a 6-on-4 while Denver had it’s goaltender pulled. The Minutemen haven’t allowed a single goal 5-on-4, and for the most part they’ve looked dominant in clearing the puck out of the zone without giving up dangerous chances. On top of that, they’ve scored more shorthanded goals than they’ve allowed.

The power play is also great, but those numbers are inflated by an extremely successful weekend against Union where UMass went 7-of-11. I think the power play will remain strong but fall in the rankings soon. The penalty kill, though, doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere.

Will Pavicich and Brady keep splitting games in net?

I didn’t think UMass would have another year of splitting the goalies because they’re both great options, but so far it looks like that’s the case.

On the eye test alone, it looks like Luke Pavicich is the Minutemen’s best net minder, but Cole Brady has also been solid, and didn’t allow a goal through his first 119 minutes in net for the Minutemen. So now Carvel has a few things to figure out: who is going to be the top guy going forward, and how long with Pavicich and Brady split starts before that happens.

I still think Pavicich will win the job eventually, but for now all signs point to the pair splitting series for the foreseeable future.

UMass is climbing the rankings, but isn’t good enough for No. 1 yet

The Minutemen moved up to No. 5 in the USCHO poll after its sweep of Union and received a first place vote for their strong start. But this weekend proved that UMass isn’t quite ready to be No. 1; at least not yet.

I wouldn’t be shocked if the Minutemen found their way to the top at some point during the regular season. But the early success they had hid the fact that they’re still a very young team that needs time to grow. St. Cloud St. looks dominant early on, Denver has rebounded strong from its weekend against UMass, and Michigan is still loaded with talent.

All of those teams should be ranked above UMass when the new set of USCHO polls comes out on Monday. The Minutemen may drop below No. 5, but I don’t think it’ll be more than one or two slots. They are still incredibly dominant in almost every area of the ice, and one early loss doesn’t define this start to the season.

Still, it’ll be a little while before you see a “No. 1” beside UMass’ name.

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