Special teams sparks what may be turnaround for Massachusetts

For a good stretch this year, the Massachusetts Minutemen came close but got no cigar.

They opened the season at Minnesota, where they lost two one-goal (plus an empty-netter) games. They continued with home-and-home series against first Boston University and then Providence with the same result: another one-goal loss and a tie.

After a bad loss to Army, 5-2, and a 3-0 defeat at New Hampshire, the Minutemen took on UNH again and this time had a win in their hands. Michael Pereira scored with 1:02 left to give them a 3-2 lead, only to see that apparent win slip through their fingers on an extra-attacker goal.

Close but no cigar.

This past week, though, things finally began to turn around for UMass. The Minutemen got their first win of the season, defeating Vermont, 4-1. They then made it two-for-two with a follow-up win over Quinnipiac, 5-2.

The difference?

One of them was special teams. The penalty kill went a collective 9-for-10 and the power play went 3-for-16. Those numbers improved UMass to 74.1 percent (worst in Hockey East) and 12.9 percent (eighth), respectively. (The Minutemen have also been taking the third-most penalties in the league.)

“You can’t have special teams skewed negatively to the extent that we did,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “It’s easy to say that you’re not going to have the same level of confidence or the same consistency and execution that you might have when you have more experienced players, but that got to be an old argument.”

Especially after the Army debacle.

“We had prided ourselves initially on having a good work ethic, but that was tested when Army came in here and just took us apart,” Cahoon says. “The No. 1 factor in that game was the lack of work ethic.”

With a refocused effort on work ethic combined with execution, particularly on special teams, UMass finally got the breakthrough win over Vermont.

Cahoon had been happy with his team’s enthusiasm in games and practices while weathering the losing streak but still has noticed a lighter tone since the wins.

“I tell people all the time that there is a huge difference between winning and losing,” he says. “You can’t always be about the winning.

“I know fans and maybe even athletic directors are out there looking at this whole proposition just from a win-lose perspective, but it’s not all about that. You’re talking about growing people as well in a vital period in their life.

“But who’s kidding who? The fun is in the winning and our objective is to win.

“I think there’s a relief when you win. A little bit of joy but total relief. Losing impacts your emotions 10 times as much because it’s just such a chore to move on and continue to endure the struggle when you lose.

“Winning is about the relief and picking yourself up a little bit and it’s on to the next challenge.”

Of the 10 freshmen who’ve seen significant ice time, Pereira has made the biggest contribution, leading the team in scoring with seven goals and four assists in 10 games.

“Michael is a gifted kid around the net,” Cahoon says. “You can’t teach those things. He fundamentally has things to learn just like all the young players do in terms of the game itself, but he’s very gifted around the net, has good quickness and has the ability to protect the puck.

“His shot release and ability to be clever in certain situations has really allowed him to get off to a good start. It’s not easy to find goal scorers, so hopefully he’s one of those guys that consistently is able to contribute on that front.”

The top veterans — goaltender Paul Dainton, forward T.J. Syner and defenseman Michael Marcou — have done yeoman’s work during the transition to a much younger team.

“They’re really good people,” Cahoon says. “I think every coach in our league for sure and throughout college hockey wants good people in the locker room.

“They’re very determined. They’ve given the younger guys a good direction in terms of the ability to focus and being interested in continuing to grow and get better.”

Dainton has a 2-3-2 record with a 3.00 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. His contributions, however, go beyond the statistics themselves.

“Dainton assumed the leadership role not because we thought it was a good idea for a goalie to be captain, because that’s a rarity in itself, but just simply because he’s the best leader in the locker room,” Cahoon says. “He doesn’t speak up all the time, but when he speaks, everybody pays attention.

“He’s just so involved with everything that he does. Academically, he’s a teaching assistant for a Psychology professor. He didn’t come here as a great student, he came here as a capable student, but he’s worked to become a very interested, capable student. He’s enjoying his experience at every level and the kids recognize this.”

Syner and Marcou, both juniors, rank second and third behind Pereira in scoring. Marcou, a defenseman, won’t lead UMass in points the way his brother James did in all of his three years there (accumulating 130 points) but will make his mark.

“Marcou is the consummate competitor,” Cahoon says. “He’s always being compared to his brother. He certainly is not James. They are two different players altogether, but I think he’s got that little chip on his shoulder that hey, he wants to be his own man and be considered to be a good player in his own right.”

UMass plays two more games before the holiday break, facing Massachusetts-Lowell this weekend and Maine the next. Cahoon, of course, isn’t even thinking about Maine at this point.

“Lowell is a very formidable opponent,” he says. “Their struggles are in part not dissimilar to our own. I can be sure that [UML coach] Blaise MacDonald will have that team well prepared and ready to play at the top of their game.

“I throw the records out the window. Our record isn’t any good; theirs isn’t any good. Both teams are fighting for their lives.”

Brown and the PairWise

Brown took on a couple Hockey East heavyweights last week (UNH and Boston University) and impressed while coming away with two ties. Coach Brendan Whittet spoke of the importance of such games against perennially top 10 teams.

“We don’t get the chance to play UNH every year,” he said after Tuesday night’s game. “We looked at this as an opportunity to gain points in the NCAA PairWise. People may think we’re crazy, but that’s our goal. We want to be in the NCAA tournament.

“The games you win [over top 10 teams] bump you up pretty good.”

Look for Brown to do more damage against Hockey East teams in future years.

A hockey novel I think you’ll like

WestSide Books will be publishing “Breaking the Ice,” my Young Adult hockey novel!

I am, of course, ecstatic.

The publication date hasn’t been set yet, but I expect it’ll be around this time next year.

Although the novel is technically in the Young Adult category, it’s really age appropriate for anyone. I’m very proud of it.

Details to follow.

As always, you can get news about my writing on my website.


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