Trophy Season is in full effect, and first up for BC on the postseason slate is the University of Massachusetts. I sat down with fellow blogger Mark Coogan of Fear The Triangle to talk about the Minutemen and how they got to this point in the season. I gave him some insight on the Eagles over on his site as well, so be sure to check it out.
BC Interruption: UMass has frustrated a ton of top teams this year. What's the deal? Is there something specific you've noticed between the Jekyll UMass and the Hyde UMass?
Fear The Triangle: Consistent focus and effort, especially on the defensive end, is what has made the difference between winning and losing this season. UMass' defensive corps is good, but still relatively young with Mike Marcou the only senior among a bunch of sophomores and freshmen. When the team has lost it's usually been because there will be a stretch of time where they just get lazy or find themselves out of position and very quickly the score can change. Last weekend they played Merrimack tough for fifty minutes and had a third period lead but a defensive breakdown here and there and it's suddenly a two goal Merrimack lead. The weekend before it was literally a 17 second stretch where UMass players stood and watched on defense that allowed the Wildcats to get two goals and the win. UMass' biggest wins, against BC, BU and Yale, have come when they've played for an entire game hard and didn't have glaring defensive lapses.
BCI: How do UMass fans feel about playing BC for a 4th, 5th, and possibly 6th time this year? Is there a feeling of running into a buzzsaw, or that our win streak has been a mirage given the weaker teams we've faced of late?
FTT: Honestly as all the Hockey East scores changed wildly on Saturday and UMass' projected opponent bounced around between BC, BU and Lowell, the one opponent most of the fans I spoke to didn't want any part of was the River Hawks. UMass was never really in any of the their three losses to Lowell. On the other hand, they've shown they can not only compete with, but defeat both BC and BU and have done so at least semi-recently. This team seems to have a fragile psyche, so I think playing an opponent they've had success against is important. That said, I think everyone realizes it would take a huge upset to knock of the Eagles given how they're playing and not many have discounted the win streak they're on. 11 wins is 11 wins. Personally I hoped to play BU, if only because the team's win against the Terriers came at Agganis.
BCI: Prior to this season, it seemed like UMass couldn't buy a break against the Eagles for years, losing 12 straight. Then out of nowhere, UMass took the season series against the Eagles this year. Is it something that changed with the approach to playing BC's up-and-down style, or is it just an extension of the season of the UMass Upset Special? You know we BC fans like to make it all about us!
FTT: I honestly have no idea. I've stopped trying to understand this team. There hasn't been anything different in terms of strategy or schemes that have led to success. It's just been the effort and consistency that have determined the different outcomes. They lose 7-3 to UNH one night, knock off #1 BC the next. Get their first road win by upsetting the Terriers at Agganis, lose at home to Providence a day after. I don't think fans or even the coaches know which UMass team is going to hit the ice on any given night. It's been a roller coaster ride, we're just gripping the safety bar tight and hoping it ends well.
BCI: What's the one part of UMass that BC fans should be most afraid of? The Minuteman Power play? Penalty kill? Goaltender? Third line center? The students that are making the trip?
FTT: Speed. I've been watching Hockey East for a long time and senior captain T.J. Syner is most likely the fastest player I've ever seen in the league. It only takes a couple strides for him to get behind the opposing defense and while he's not the best finisher in the league he's more than likely to draw a penalty while blowing by someone. And guys like Branden Gracel and Conor Sheary are almost quick enough to stick right with him. Another thing to keep an eye out for is offensive contributions by defensemen. Joel Hanley and Mike Marcou are both among the league leaders in points and goals for defensemen and Conor Allen has a knack for scoring or setting up key goals. But speaking of UMass students making the trip, shoutout to BC Athletic Director extraordinaire Gene DeFilippo for the Groupon deal. Thanks Geno!
BCI: On the flip side, how can the Eagles make this series a quick and painless two games for BC fans? I promise I won't tell Jerry!
FTT: UMass uses two freshmen goaltenders, Kevin Boyle and Steve Mastalerz, who obviously have no experience with the pressure of Hockey East playoffs. They've both played well at times this season, including each gaining a win over the Eagles, but they've struggled to give the team a legitimate chance to win in consecutive games. If BC scores a couple early goals and it shakes their confidence it could make for a quick series. And if the Eagles can put four up on the board, forget about it. The Minutemen are 0-15-1 when the opponent gets four goals.
BCI: UMass doesn't seem to have had many really dramatic winning or losing streaks over the course of the year, but I'm sure certain aspects of the team have changed over time. How would you say the Minutemen have improved the most over the course of the year?
FTT: Special teams were the most glaring problem through the first half of the season with both the penalty kill and power play among the bottom ten in the country. Up through their game at Fenway with Vermont UMass' power play was converting at 16.2% and their penalty kill was a paltry 72.2%. But since that time they've been able to boost their power play percentage to 21.3% and have made a huge improvement on the kill at 81.5%, including allowing just one power play goals in the last 15 opportunities.
BCI: Hey there, I'm Joe Casual Hockey Fan and I loveeee upsets! Let's cut to the chase. Tell me, since I love upsets so much, how is UMass going to entertain me and make it happen this weekend? What are the pieces that need to come together?
FTT: I'm not going to say mistake free hockey, but it's going to have to be something close to it. With nearly every UMass loss this year, and there have been quite a few of them, you can basically pin it down to some play where a forward failed to clear a puck as the seconds ticked down, a defenseman was caught chasing someone behind the net, a goaltender left enough room between him and the post to drive a zamboni through, or something of the like. The players know it's win or go golf so I think you'll see a good effort regardless. But it's going to come down to execution. Three keys to me are defensive positioning, helping the goaltenders by sweeping away the rebounds, and the forwards disrupting BC from getting the puck into the offensive zone cleanly. Although Tommy Cross taking about four ill-advised penalties per game would also go a long way towards an upset.