Thursday, March 02, 2017

UNH Captain's Corner: Searching for a Playoff Turnaround

UNH Captain Matias Cleland

With the 2016-17 regular season over and the Hockey East Playoffs about to begin, I thought it might be fun, and informative, to take a look back at the first "UNH Captain's Corner" of the season. Here's a link to "UNH Captain's Corner: Season Opening Loss to Bentley" posted on October 10, 2016.

The article included my first interview with UNH captain Matias Cleland. UNH had just come off a 5-1 loss to Bentley College from the Atlantic Hockey Conference. The Wildcats had difficulties scoring on the power play and preventing goals on defense so I asked Matias what the team needed to do to improve these areas.

As the season progressed, the UNH power play became one of the best in Hockey East and Division 1. In Hockey East competition (22 games for each HE team), the Wildcats' power play scored on 27.6% of opportunities (27 out of 98) - 2nd best in the conference. Across the overall, 32 game season, UNH converted on 22.7% of opportunities (38 out of 167) - 7th best in all of NCAA Division 1.

At the other end of the ice, UNH's team defense mostly struggled. In the 12-team Hockey East Conference, UNH had the 10th scoring defense. The Wildcats allowed an average of 3.50 goals per game. Overall, UNH's defense was ranked #52 in the nation having allowed an average of 3.47 goals per game.

Needless to say, to succeed in the upcoming Hockey East Playoffs, UNH will need to continue to score on the power play and improve play in the defensive zone. In my interview with Matias, we discussed these two key areas as well as the opening round, playoff series against Merrimack College.

Captain's Interview

Mike Lowry ("C-H-C"): In our first Captain's Corner of the season, which followed a 5-1 loss to Bentley College in the season opener, we talked about two key areas that the team needed to improve. The first was the power play. Against Bentley, UNH had a 5-on-3 power play opportunity in each of the three periods but did not score. I asked you what the power play units needed to do to improve. Here's your answer:
"We have some skilled players on both units obviously and that can lead to guys not shooting the puck as much as they need to. I think we can look to shoot the puck more and get bodies to the net. That being said, we had a lot of shots blocked on the power play on Saturday night. We need to get pucks through traffic and give our guys down low a chance to get second opportunities. This will help our power play a lot."
As the season progressed, the UNH power play dramatically improved. In Hockey East competition, UNH had the second best conversion rate in the league - 27.6%. Your contributions to the power play were a key. As the only defenseman on the first unit, you scored 2 goals and 20 assists (2nd most in Hockey East and the nation) on the power play. Looking beyond the impressive statistics, what did each player on the first power play unit (i.e., yourself, Tyler Kelleher, Jason Salvaggio, Michael McNicholas, and Patrick Grasso) do to make it so effective?

Matias Cleland: Our power play has been effective this year. Each guy on the power play has done their part in making it effective. Kelleher and McNicholas are two skilled players that make plays. Grasso, who plays down low, is another skilled player that makes plays and is great at finding rebounds in front of the net. Salvaggio has a great shot and is great to have in the middle. We need to keep moving the puck quick and getting pucks to the net and we will be successful into the playoffs.

Mike Lowry: The other area for improvement we discussed after the season opener was defensive zone coverage. I asked you what defensive mistakes needed to be corrected: Here's your answer:
"They (Bentley) did a good job controlling the puck down below the goal line but they found open guys in front. That was the issue with the goals they scored. We need to execute our defensive zone and do our individual jobs. We felt like leaving guys open was a big reason why they were able to score goals on us. If we can fix this, we will be a tough team to score against."
In many games this season, UNH struggled in the defensive end. In Hockey East competition, UNH allowed the third most goals per game - 3.50. Over the final 12 games of the regular season (Record: 1-9-2), goalie Danny Tirone faced an average of 40 shots on goal per game. Did leaving guys open in the defensive zone become a chronic problem? Were there other types of defensive breakdowns over the last dozen games? Does UNH have the manpower and ability to overcome these problems in the Hockey East playoffs?

Matias Cleland: The defensive zone is obviously key for any hockey team. I do believe there are areas we need to clean up in the defensive zone, but you also have to look at the teams we played down the stretch. We played some of the most skilled teams in the nation and those type of teams are going to score goals. We just have to limit them. We can't beat ourselves in playoffs and that's going to be the key going into the post season. Everyone has to do their jobs.

Lowry: The opening round of the playoffs at Merrimack College will be a rematch from last season. Last year's team lost the best-of-three series in overtime of Game 3. Earlier this season, UNH defeated Merrimack 6-2 and tied 3-3 at the Whittemore Center. Does Merrimack present a unique challenge on their smaller ice surface and arena? What are the keys to a UNH victory?

Cleland: Merrimack is a good team that plays well in their building. They play hard and have some skilled players. Winning 1v1 battles will be key. Specialty teams and goaltending are always the two main areas in the playoffs. These are two areas that I believe we can win and it'll put us in a position to win the series this weekend.


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