Massachusetts Trying to Ride Renewed PP
Special Teams Hold Key to Minutemen's Season
by Nick Canelas/CHN Reporter
During the first intermission of last Friday's game against Michigan State, Massachusetts senior forward Branden Gracel had a word with Joel Hanley. Gracel had found an opening in front of the Spartans' net on the power play earlier in the period, but the defenseman had yet to find him.
Gracel told him that he was wide open backdoor and to not even bother looking, to simply throw the puck down there and he'd get it and finish the play. MSU had been playing aggressively on the perimeter on the penalty kill, so it was likely the play would be there again.
The pair wasted little time the next opportunity they got. Hanley controlled the puck right off the faceoff and hit Gracel right where he said he would be eight seconds into a Ryan Keller unsportsmanlike penalty three minutes, 20 seconds into the second period on a pass from the point that Gracel tapped in with the forehand to give UMass a 1-0 lead it would not relinquish.
“(Hanley) told me after that he didn’t even look where he threw the puck,” Gracel said. “He just passed it there so it worked out well.”
That was only the beginning of a big weekend for the Minutemen's power-play unit. UMass followed up Friday's 3-1 win with four goals on the man-advantage for a 5-2 victory over MSU to complete the weekend sweep. The last time the Minutemen scored four power-play goals in a game came on Oct. 8, 2009, when they scored five man-up goals against RPI.
UMass coach John Micheletto said after Saturday's game that the difference on the power play was the team's success on puck retrievals and regaining possession of the puck after losing it. It led to more time in the offensive zone and with the Spartans continuing to play aggressively near the blue line, it opened up scoring chances in front of the net that the Minutemen immediately capitalized on.
“It's a 15-second clip if you have to go all the way back to your end to get the puck and try to break in cleanly again,” Micheletto said, “so all of a sudden on the power play if they get three or four clears you wasted all of your momentum and energy having to go back into your own end and try to regain the zone.”
UMass' second unit of Troy Power and freshmen Steven Iacobellis and Ray Pigozzi accounted for three of its four power play goals for the game. Iacobellis picked up the first goal 6:59 into the first period when finished on a scrum in front of the net after Power's attempt was just stopped by MSU goaltender Will Yanakeff. Then Pigozzi hit Adam Phillips for a one-timer just above the right circle at 13:34 and Power capped it off with a score on a feed from Iacobellis on another man-advantage just five minutes later.
“For me it seemed like everybody I gave it to, every shot they took kind of just went in,” said Pigozzi, who finished the game with three assists. “I liked that definitely from my standpoint. But we've been doing work on it in practice and stuff like that but it's just working with the big ice. I think we had a little more space this weekend than we did last weekend and a little more time to make plays and guys were just open and moving around.”
If the Minutemen want to have success in a season with low expectations, capitalizing on power-play chances may be their best hope. UMass already has eight power-play goals in four games this season, but its effectiveness with the man-advantage the last two games in particular may have been the difference between a winless weekend against Boston University and Massachusetts-Lowell, and a weekend sweep of Michigan State.
“It's gonna be huge,” Iacobellis said. “It's a big part of the game. We've got an unreal first power play unit (Conor Sheary, Michael Pereira and Gracel), they have so much skill, so if they're going and we're not going or vice versa, I think we're gonna have a pretty successful year if that's the trend.”
Power added: “I think we finished our chances this weekend. I think we played well in our first weekend, but we didn't have a lot to show for it. This weekend we bared down and finished our opportunities.”
And the majority of those opportunities were on the power play. The Minutemen had 11 power plays and converted on five of them. The end result was a pair of wins and a frustrated Tom Anastos after UMass had adjusted to the pk and the Spartans struggled to keep up.
“Their power play was very good and ours was poor,” the Michigan State coach said. “That was the difference in the game. We didn't have an answer for that. I thought they did a really good job moving around, changing up based on what we were doing and I was very impressed with the power play tonight.”
Ultimately, that could also be the difference between whether or not UMass can keep up late in the season.