Special teams play hurting UMass hockey this season

  • Mitchell Chaffee, left, of UMass, moves the puck past Shane Bear, of RPI, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019 at the Mullins Center.

  • Massachusetts' Mitchell Chaffee during an NCAA hockey game against Northeastern on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019 in Boston. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson) Winslow Townson

  • UMass Mullins Center 10/19/19. UMass No.9 John Leonard, skates the puck in for a shot on goal past Union No.4 Joseph Campolieto in the 1st period.photo by J. Anthony Roberts J. Anthony Roberts

  • John Leonard, left, of UMass, moves the puck against Ryan Mahshie, of RPI, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019 at the Mullins Center.

Staff Writer
Published: 1/16/2020 9:11:36 PM
Modified: 1/16/2020 9:10:43 PM

AMHERST — Before last season’s historic run, Greg Carvel continued to highlight two keys to his team’s success – goaltending and special teams.

Both areas lined up perfectly for UMass as it went on to rewrite its own record books in those categories. What was especially notable was the Minutemen’s ratings in the top 10 nationally on both special teams units, which both set the school record for efficiency.

What was evident over the past two weekends is just how much the Minutemen have fallen off when playing up or down a man from last season’s historic pace. It was going to be a tall task for No. 10 UMass to replicate its 28.5 percent conversion rate on the power play without Cale Makar, but it seemed doable for the Minutemen to at least come close to matching their 86.9 percent penalty killing rate.

The reality, though, is UMass ranks 50th out of 60 teams on the power play and just 20th on the penalty kill, a number boosted by killing off the first 26 penalties of the season. The Minutemen have killed just 76.6 percent of their penalties since Northeastern broke the streak on Nov. 1.

“Whereas last year our special teams were very strong, they’re very average this year,” Carvel said last week.

Although UMass’ play while down a man is an issue, the biggest surprise has been the lack of firepower coming from the power play. The Minutemen have yet to score multiple goals on the man advantage in a game this season and have converted on just two of their 21 power plays since returning from winter break.

Part of the issue is the lack of continuity on the first unit with sophomore Marc Del Gaizo and freshman Zac Jones still trying to find a dynamic as the defensemen on that top fivesome. Del Gaizo and Jones have only appeared in the same game six times through 22 contests this season with Del Gaizo missing time due to injury and Jones missing two games due to the World Junior Championships.

However, Carvel isn’t laying the entire problem at the feet of not having his two best offensive defensemen.

“You don’t get the reps, they don’t have the uniformity of having the time to practice all the time together,” Carvel said last week. “That’s part of it, but the other part is the ability to create a shot, get it back, get another shot. We haven’t retrieved pucks as well as we did last year.”

Before the Dec. 29 contest against RPI, Carvel made some changes to the power play structure to find more space for Mitchell Chaffee and John Leonard, UMass’ two leading goal scorers, to find more shots. It’s worked to some extent for the Minutemen, but as Carvel and Chaffee pointed out, they haven’t been able to sustain possession.

What made UMass so dangerous on the power play last season was the sense that it was going to suffocate the penalty killers by continually winning back the puck and applying more pressure. This year, UMass has not been able to pin teams into the defensive zone as often and haven’t created those extra opportunities around the net where it could score more goals.

“The biggest thing is puck retrieval,” Chaffee said after Saturday’s 6-3 loss to Boston College. “We get shots or we get entries and we can’t retrieve the puck. That’s been a big issue these last few games or so, it’s something we need to continue to work on. It’s more of a mindset thing that we need to go into the power play that we have to outwork their penalty kill.”

HOBEY NOMINEES — UMass had two players named to the 79-person list of nominees for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the best college hockey player in the country. Leonard, an Amherst native, and Chaffee were both included on the ballot that was opened for online fan voting Thursday.

Leonard is on pace to be the fifth UMass player to score 20 goals in a season in the program’s Division I era and first to accomplish the feat in a decade. The junior winger has 15 goals and five assists through 22 games this season for the Minutemen, and has lit the lamp seven times in his last nine games.

Chaffee leads the Minutemen in points with 26, evenly split between goals and assists. The returning first-team All-American and last year’s Hockey East scoring champion ranks in the top 25 nationally in both goals (16th) and points (21st).

Cale Makar became the first UMass player to win the Hobey Baker Award last season and Maine was the last school to have back-to-back Hobey Baker winners with Scott Pellerin and Paul Kariya in 1992 and 1993, respectively.

CHAU RETURNS — Junior winger Oliver Chau was a full participant during Tuesday’s practice and Carvel said he expects him to play this weekend at Vermont. Chau missed last weekend’s series with Boston College due to an unspecified injury.

The Minutemen (14-7-1, 7-4-1 Hockey East) will play the Catamounts (3-13-1, 0-9-1) at 7 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday night in Burlington, Vermont.

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