Skillings: Why has UMass struggled this season?

The Minutemen are 4-10-2 since historic start

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Dylan Nguyen/Daily Collegian (2023)

By Matt Skillings, Collegian Staff

The Massachusetts hockey team is amid its most trying season since 2017-2018. After a historically strong start to its season, UMass (9-10-3, 3-8-1 HEA) has gone 4-10-2 since it defeated Merrimack in overtime on Oct. 28 to complete its undefeated start through six games.

In this 4-10-2 stretch, the Minutemen have defeated UMass Lowell, New Hampshire, Lake Superior State and Brown University. With the exception of Lowell, each of these teams are in the bottom half of the pairwise rankings and have losing records.

The biggest issue for UMass has been a lack of consistency in both scoring and on defense. In this 16-game stretch since it started 5-0-1, UMass has scored 36 goals (2.25 GPG) and has allowed 53 goals against (3.31 GAPG). The Minutemen are allowing on average over one goal per game more than they are scoring.

This trend is due to three main issues: a lack of scoring consistency throughout the lineup, inexperience on defense, and a lack of a true No. 1 goaltender.

The most pressing of these three issues is the goal scoring. The Minutemen are missing both top end scorers and scoring depth. A good hockey team needs at the least one of these things to be truly successful, and this UMass team has not consistently shown that they have either.

UMass expected that they likely wouldn’t have anyone who could replicate what Bobby Trivigno brought to the table last season, but there was the expectation that goal scoring wouldn’t be an issue with the rising seniors combined with the now experienced juniors and sophomores.

After losing their top line from last season, the Minutemen needed the upperclassmen on the team to take charge offensively, but the senior class has severely underperformed up to this point in the season.

The two seniors who should be leading the Minutemen offensively are Reed Lebster and Cal Kiefiuk but since the Dec. 3 game against Lowell, each of them have zero goals and one assist. Add in the senior’s typical center Josh Nodler and he has had one goal in that stretch. That’s eight games in a row where the Minutemen have gotten essentially zero production from what is supposed to be their top line.

Looking down the lineup, the Minutemen looked like they would have a consistent scoring line in sophomores Taylor Makar, Ryan Lautenbach and Lucas Mercuri. Each player looked to have taken a big step forward after the first 10 games or so, but the line has been quiet lately. Lautenbach started the season with six points in six games but has just one goal and three assists since. Taylor Makar has seven goals but has proven to be streaky. He showed glimpses of dominance but has ultimately not scored consistently enough to be a real game changer for the Minutemen. Lucas Mercuri has just two assists in the last 16 games and was recently relegated to the extra skater role against New Hampshire.

Without top end scoring, depth is essential, and UMass has the pieces to be a strong offensive team. When only one line shows up on any given night and the leaders of the team aren’t stepping up offensively, it’s hard to be successful in college hockey, especially with how good HEA is this season.

In terms of defense, the issues can mostly be boiled down to injuries forcing young players to play big minutes when they aren’t quite ready for it. Linden Alger has been out for two months with a broken leg and Aaron Bohlinger has missed stretches of play. Because of this, Kennedy O’Connor, Owen Murray, Noah Ellis and Mikey Adamson have been thrust in the lineup for a good portion of the season, and each have shown their inexperience.

O’Connor, Murray and Adamson are a combined -12 and the only one of them to get on the scoresheet has been Adamson with one goal. It’s been a struggle for them to get used to the pace of college hockey as proven by the Minutemen giving up almost three and a half goals per game.

Scott Morrow and Ryan Ufko have taken steps forward in their defensive development this season, but it’s been hard for UMass to be shutdown defensively when they have so much inexperience on their bottom two pairs.

Despite their struggles, O’Connor and Murray have shown potential playing together on the third defensive pair, it’s just taking them longer to adjust to the college hockey game than the team needs them to.

In net, Luke Pavicich has been good for most of the games he’s played in, but just like the rest of the team he lacks the consistency needed to be a true No. 1 goaltender.

Pavicich could and should be the No. 1 guy, but he needs to keep the Minutemen from losing games like Clarkson, where he allowed six unanswered goals, four of which were in the third period. That’s not to say that every goal was his fault, but sometimes you need your goaltender to bail you out of sticky situations and Pavicich hasn’t completely shown that he is capable of that.

It’s been a season of trials and tribulations for the Minutemen, but the good news is that they have all the pieces they need to be a front running team. There’s talent on offense, defense and in the net, but the team needs to figure out how to come together to win hockey games. There can’t be games where only one line and one defensive pair are firing on all cylinders, something that is happening far too often right now.

I don’t think this team or this season is too far gone, but things need to turn quickly for UMass to make any type of noise down the stretch.

Matt Skillings can be reached at [email protected] and followed on twitter @matt_skillings