Massachusetts, Providence keeping heads above water in Hockey East

Not too hot. Not too cold.

This week it’s time to look at two teams that aren’t in the national rankings but are on pace to make the Hockey East playoffs, albeit as road teams.

Massachusetts: Back to square one? Absolutely not

They’re almost certainly not going to earn home ice in the playoffs, but you’ve still got to like the way the Massachusetts Minutemen have performed this year. After an offseason which saw them lose a staggering amount of talent, they’ve dealt with the ups and downs well enough to be in seventh place, just two games under .500 in league play.

Massachusetts coach Don Cahoon (Melissa Wade)
Massachusetts coach Don "Toot" Cahoon has a number of freshmen playing major roles this season (photo: Melissa Wade).

Of late, they’ve been playing particularly well, winning three of their last four. They swept sister school Massachusetts-Lowell two weekends ago before splitting a two-game set this past weekend at Vermont. Even better is the way they played in the split. After a 2-1 loss on Friday night, they took no prisoners on Saturday, thumping their hosts, 6-0.

Hey, the standings don’t reflect style points but as a measure of how the team has been playing a 6-0 win looks mighty nice.

“It’s a team that has shown improvement,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “You hope teams will show that over the course of the year.

“We’re getting it from a variety of sources because of the kind of injuries that all teams go through. It’s to their credit that they’ve been able to withstand all the disruption along the way.

“Being a young team can itself be an excuse not to compete, but they’ve shown that they can withstand adversity, and that’s good.”

The freshman class is carrying its share of the load and then some. Michael Pereira, tied for second on the team in scoring, was expected to make an immediate contribution, but the list of impressive rookies extends a lot further than him.

Four defensemen — Joel Hanley, Adam Phillips, Colin Shea and Conor Allen — have played regularly as have forwards Branden Gracel (10 points) and Conor Sheary (9).

“As young players in this league, it’s oftentimes a real struggle to get serious contribution, productive contribution, but those guys have really done a great job,” Cahoon says. “To have four freshmen defensemen that are in the lineup every night — it’s remarkable what they’ve been able to accomplish.

“Hopefully it keeps moving in that direction and they keep working hard, feeling good about what they’ve been doing and continue to improve.”

At first glance, it’s a team without any glaring weakness. In league games, the Minutemen rank fifth in the league in team scoring, team defense and power-play percentage. Although they’re eighth on the penalty kill, they’re one of the top teams in staying out of the penalty box.

“It looks like we’re in the middle of the pack in most of those areas,” Cahoon says with a rueful laugh. “But what it seems to be is that we’re really on on certain nights and really off on other nights.

“There have been a lot of games that we’ve played in crucial situations and the penalty kill has been just great and shut people down. Then there are other nights like our first game against Northeastern that we took a lot of bad penalties and we did a horrific job trying to kill the penalties. They got three power-play goals. Game over.

“That might speak to the youthfulness of the team. Sometimes we can really lock in and play that complete game, and other nights it gets away from us. So we’re working on trying to develop a little more consistency.”

Does it matter whether the team finishes sixth or seventh? Seventh or eighth? Is it best to not even pay attention to the standings?

“I don’t think there’s a week that goes by that you don’t glimpse at the standings, see where you stand and then as a fan of college hockey pay attention to what all the leagues are doing and how things are going,” Cahoon says. “But you don’t dwell on it.

“This is about teaching and coaching. So you spend your time each and every day preparing your lesson plan, your practice, and you go out and you try to execute it.

“Then you have the challenge of working with individual players and dealing with individual issues that oftentimes take place with kids this age. You have maybe 28 guys in the program that you try to manage.

“So you get so blocked into that on a day-to-day basis that you don’t get too caught up with the standings. You just try to get ready for the next outing and do the best you can each and every outing.”

With a team this young, two games under .500 in the league is not too shabby. However, the schedule down the stretch is daunting. After a home-and-home series with Northeastern this weekend, UMass will face nationally ranked teams in nine of its final 10 regular season games.

“Our heads are above water,” Cahoon says. “We’re not really were we need to be, but we’re hanging in there.

“But we’ve got to keep getting better. We’ve got a huge undertaking staring us in the face, whether it be Northeastern this week or into the future with some of the opponents that we’ve got to play.

“We’ve got a ton of hockey ahead of us. If we can just take care of our business day to day, we might have some success.”

Providence: Close but no cigar

The Providence Friars have been one of the most pleasant surprises in the league this year. Picked in the preseason to finish in last place for the third straight year, they’ve instead stayed on a pace that would put them in the playoffs and have an overall record just three games under .500.

Their hold on a playoff berth, however, has grown considerably more tenuous in recent weeks as they’ve lost all four league games in 2011. You have to go back to Nov. 5 for Providence’s last league win.

To simply state, though, that the Friars have gone 0-for-2011 in Hockey East belies their actual performances. The first two losses came at the hands of second-ranked Boston College, 4-1 and 3-1. Both of the next two came in overtime, first to 12th-ranked Maine and then to seventh-ranked New Hampshire.

“Unfortunately we didn’t at least come away with a point in those games, particularly in the UNH game because we were down to under a minute to go in the overtime,” PC coach Tim Army says. “I think we’ve played well.

“We’re battling for a playoff spot so those points are important. Close isn’t good enough. We have to find a way to finish the deal.

“I thought in both games that we lost in overtime what led to the winning goal was a situation where we just got above the puck — [overskating it] — and we weren’t detailed enough away from the puck and it led to ultimately the goal against.

“Those are common mistakes, but you can’t make them in those situations. For us to move forward I want to see us continue to play the way that we’re playing, do the things that we’re doing, but make good decisions in those situations where we don’t have the puck, it’s getting late in the game and we’re playing against a good team with good players.”

Since it has been a while since the Friars have collected a league win, doubts could be creeping in. Since they’ve come close-but-no-cigar against teams that will be contending for a national championship, frustration could also be creeping in.

“I try to talk more about the good things that we’ve done and that we’re in a situation to have an opportunity to win,” Army says. “But [I’ve also stressed that] in those tight situations we need to make better decisions. We’ve got to learn from the mistakes that we’ve made so that as we go forward we play more detailed in those situations.”

Providence will get a shot at immediate revenge against UNH because the schedule offers a unique three-game set broken only by last weekend’s exhibition win over the national Under-18 team.

“It’s three games in a row,” Army says. “This is what the schedule is. It’s not good. It’s not bad. It’s just the way the schedule is.

“It’s almost like playing a playoff series where you’re seeing that same team for a few nights. From a preparation standpoint, it’s good because you’re totally focused on that one team.

“Beyond that, we’re playing against obviously a great team and we need to be ready to play our best game.”

The one area that has shown recent promise has been the area of Providence’s greatest weakness. The Friars rank dead last (and a distant dead last it is) in Hockey East power-play percentage. They’ve converted only 8.5 percent of man advantages in league play, scoring six times in 71 chances while allowing two short-handed goals.

Not a recipe for success.

Two of those goals, however, came against New Hampshire last Friday.

“We have struggled and our percentages obviously indicate that we’ve struggled,” Army says. “But I think we’ve had some good power plays, we’ve had some good possession, and we’ve had some good chances we haven’t capitalized on.

“It’s not all bad. I like the personnel the way we have it now.

“We need to get some production from the power play. We are a pretty good team five-on-five scoring, but we need the bump from our power play.”


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