January 15, 2010 PRINT Bookmark and Share

UMass Buckles Down; Starts Test with Lowell

by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter

On Dec. 12, Massachusetts goaltender Paul Dainton made two bold statements.

The first came on the ice.

With the Minutemen leading Merrimack, 2-1, Dainton robbed Merrimack’s Stephane Da Costa to preserve the one-goal lead. The Minutemen promptly scored twice more and left that night with a 4-1 win.

His second statement came a few minutes following the game.

“I know there are a lot of critics out there waiting for us to fall off,” the junior said, “but, this year, it’s not going to happen,”

There were a lot of people – call them critics if you’d like – waiting for the Minutemen to “fall off.” And those people had a point as the Minutemen did just that in each of the last two seasons.

In 2007-08, UMass started 9-3-5 only to finish 5-13-1. The following season it posted a 9-7-1 record before finishing 7-13-2.

In the first four games following Dainton’s statement, the questions of failures past became even more relevant – UMass was 1-3-0 in those first four games. Those losses included two conference games and a defeat at the hands of Bentley in the championship game of the Toyota UConn Classic.

UMass’ most recent loss came last Saturday night in Durham, N.H., against New Hampshire. UNH scored four goals in the first period and left the Whittemore Center with a 7-2 victory.

The loss left UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon numb. Following the game, he had this to say, “I want to apologize to the entire UMass hockey community, and anybody that’s been following this program, for that showing. Like every coach at this level, I have to be accountable and take responsibility for the way my team shows up and competes, and tonight we played like a defeated group of people.

“Three years running, we have gone into Christmas as a team of the future, and as a team that is to be reckoned with, and three years running we have fallen right on our face,” he continued. “And we have to look at each other every day, because we are the only ones that can solve this.”

“It was embarrassing; we were far beyond pissed off,” Dainton said. “I’ve been here for three years, and it was the worst that we’ve played in every part of the game.”

Twenty-four hours later, the Minutemen walked into Matthews Arena for their first meeting of the season with Northeastern. It was in this very building last year that UMass’ season ended with a 2-1 series loss to the Huskies.

As always, a precious two points was the reward for a strong game. Sunday night, though, it seemed as if the reputation of the program stood in question more than the two points handed out to the winner.

UMass’ success and eventual failure has become a national punch line. It took three years for the Minutemen to realize that a few wins in November impresses no one.

“Tonight, we really wanted to focus on team defense, and we only had 13 shots against. It shows our attention to detail, and that we show some pride in the UMass jersey,” Dainton said.

The Minutemen defeated Northeastern, 4-1, in their most thorough effort since the win over Merrimack nearly one month ago. Aided by a 5-minute major and game misconduct on NU center Steve Silva, the UMass power play scored three goals in leading the Minutemen to the comfortable victory and back into a fourth-place tie with sister program Massachusetts-Lowell in the Hockey East standings.

Taking a lesson from a thumping like Saturday’s is difficult at this level. However, Cahoon believes the loss taught the Minutemen a few things about becoming an elite team in Hockey East.

“They probably learned a lot from watching UNH last night,” he said. “[UNH] prepared themselves individually, but, to a man, they unconditionally trusted each other.”

Following the win over Northeastern, the Minutemen were proud of the win, and the team’s elder skatesmen said all the right things. Still, the win came against an average team coming off an equally disheartening loss of its own; the Huskies scored three third-period goals against UMass-Lowell on Saturday night before a defensive breakdown allowed UML to score the game-winning goal with 25 seconds remaining in overtime.

It won’t take too long for the Minutemen to get their next test, though. UMass and UMass-Lowell play a home-and-home pair beginning tonight in Amherst.

The challenge lies in consistent preparation – in the days before game and in the hours approaching puck drop. As the season progresses and teams become more cohesive, it’s even more crucial to play smart hockey. Sticking to systems and playing within your designed role is the only way to generate offense and prevent defensive breakdowns. Early in the season, UMass thrives on their opponents’ lack of synergy. The moment the other nine teams in the league begin executing more efficiently, the Minutemen struggle to do the same. The second half of the season is a completely different world.

Cahoon calls it “The Men’s League.”

It looks like his players are beginning to understand just what he’s talking about.

“We’re in no way hitting the panic button whatsoever. Everyone’s confidence is up. Everything is moving forward,” Dainton said following the win over Northeastern on Sunday. “We know we’re not going to go undefeated. We took some positives out of how we lost that game against UNH. It was a huge eye-opener to The Men’s League.”

Players past have said the same thing. It was just never clear if they meant it. At this point, no one really knows which UMass team will show up against UMass-Lowell or against Vermont next weekend.

“[Cahoon’s comments] motivated us for sure. It was embarrassing to hear our coach say that,” senior captain Brett Watson said. “We have to grow and mature as a team to the point where we’re coming to the rink every day, whether it’s a practice or a game, trying to be the best we can be. That’s the only way we can get to where we want to be at the end of the year.”

But even after hearing a statement like that from a respected player like Brett Watson, everyone who follows this team has hard time believing a word of it.

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