UMass Stuck in Neutral
by Michael King/CHN Reporter
LOWELL, Mass. The arms of Tom Fyrer and Tom Quinn remained at their sides for nearly 42 minutes. Neither referee observed an infraction worthy of the penalty box for Massachusetts until that time.
Then the Minutemen reverted to their typical behavior. After playing one of their best periods of hockey this season in the second on the road against UMass Lowell, a rash of penalties stifled any potential comeback.
UMass committed five penalties in the span of seven minutes and spent the majority of the third period trying killing them off. Two of the penalties resulted in power play goals, transforming a 3-2 hockey game into an unmanageable three-goal deficit.
"Our ability to manage ourselves is a real issue for this team," Cahoon said. "And it shows itself on the road in the big way. If you don't manage the game and manage yourself in terms of penalties, then you have little chance to win."
The undisciplined actions of the Minutemen in that frame quickly altered the tone of the game. A contest that was trending in UMass' favor rapidly evolved into its 10th Hockey East loss.
"It's something that caused to get away from the game, when in fact we made a great effort in the second period to bring ourselves back into the game," Cahoon said. "Our team wasn't ready to surrender at the end of one, that's a positive. But you definitely need to manage the entire 60 minutes."
After struggling to adapt to Lowell's physical, puck-possession game for the second consecutive night, the Minutemen entered the locker room down 2-0. But UMass came out in the second with a renewed effort and asserted themselves in the frame, outshooting its opponent 19-8. A careless turnover in their own zone, leading to a UML goal, prevented the Minutemen from entering the third all square after they worked hard to tie the score.
Then that brilliant second period of hockey was rendered irrelevant as the march to the penalty box began.
In the context of its full body of work this season, this lack of discipline is nothing new. And it points to this being a serious issue for UMass. Though they take an average number of penalties overall compared to its conference peers, the Minutemen have the second-worst penalty kill in Hockey East.
Beyond the quantity of penalties, it’s the timing of the transgressions that is most damaging. Against Vermont at Fenway Park, the Minutemen took 21 minutes worth of penalties in the third period and spent the waning minutes of regulation on the penalty kill. Though it was a game UMass managed to win, it underscores the pervasiveness of the problem.
The Minutemen are simply not talented enough to take this amount of penalties and win hockey games — only the most elite of teams are.
The lack of discipline this weekend is even more puzzling in the context of the series and the substantial implications the games posed for the Minutemen. Hoping to move up the conference standings and affirm its place in the playoffs, UMass instead failed to play complete hockey games, undone by series of penalties.
Frustration was evident from the coach after the game, as he communicated his plan to temper his players' behavior.
"It's a constant teach — and we've certainly made some adjustments — but they're the solution," Cahoon said. "They've got to recognize what we're talking about — they're living it, they're experienced — they've got to do something about it. We'll try to make some people accountable in different ways and try to solve it on a day-to-day basis."
But the penalties taken by UMass are not just the type of stick infractions that arguably could be called almost every time up-and-down the ice. Instead, many are unnecessary hits and roughing penalties.
Saturday, redshirt freshman forward Steven Guzzo took a five-minute penalty for a dangerous hit from behind. The momentary lack of focus also earned him a dismissal with a game misconduct.
Even the team's most experienced players are engaging in the same behavior. Senior defenseman Mike Marcou took a roughing penalty in the first period of Friday's game after he checked a Lowell player into the boards well after the puck was gone.
The challenges of spending significant time killing penalties beyond the obvious man disadvantage aspect are well documented. Typically a team's best penalties killers are its best players. And if these players are exerting their energy during these situations, then they're not helping their team try to score.
Perhaps the best example is speedy senior forward T.J. Syner. The captain generates scoring chances from seemingly limited opportunities, using his skating ability to take sharp angles on defensemen and win races for loose pucks.
But Syner can't use his abilities to win puck battles or kick-start the offense if he's constantly helping his team kill a penalty. That's exactly what happened in the third period Saturday night against Lowell.
Ultimately, UMass has enough skilled players to be a competitive hockey team, as evidenced by the team's two victories over Boston College and defeat of nationally ranked Cornell. But the team must learn discipline if it hopes to finish any place other than the bottom of the Hockey East standings.