AMHERST — At this point, as they absorb what first-year coach John Micheletto is selling, what the Minutemen need most are reps.
“I think they understand the concept,” Micheletto said. “It may not happen as quickly as I want it to right now or as frequently. As we know on what study you read, whether it’s 21 days or 28 days before a habit’s created, we obviously haven’t gotten to that point yet. Our guys are willing. They understand how to do it and when to do it. It’s getting them to do it as quickly as they need to do it.”
On Friday against the University of Connecticut at the Mullins Center, Micheletto made his debut behind the UMass bench. Before 7,123 fans (a school record for a home opener), the Minutemen scored a 4-1 win.
For several segments — most of the first period, early in the third — UMass executed the style Micheletto has been preaching: high-tempo, attacking hockey with net-front pressure.
“I was real excited about the way our defensemen were transitioning with the puck and with the takeaways, especially in the neutral zone,” Micheletto said. “That really fed the one goal by [Steven] Guzzo. I thought that was textbook transition, just the way we talked about and practiced a lot. The defenseman turned it over, touch pass to space, and our forwards were running. We pushed them back on their heels. That’s pretty much the way we want to play in all scenarios.”
As expected, Micheletto’s team is a work in progress. When a program has a certain feel for 12 years and undergoes a swift change, a new system — to say nothing of a new culture — requires time for adjustment.
On June 19, former UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon resigned. The Marblehead native had been at the helm for 12 seasons.
“Not at all. Not at all,” junior Michael Pereira said when asked if he expected a coaching change. “I came off the ice one day. Next thing I know, I get an e-mail from Coach Toot. It definitely took everyone by surprise. But it’s behind us. We can’t really focus on that anymore.”
Change, whether behind the bench or somewhere else within the program, might have been necessary. The Minutemen have been grinding their gears since 2006-07, the last season they had a winning record. That year, it was no coincidence they went 21-13-5. A goalie named Jonathan Quick, last seen lifting the Stanley Cup over his head, placed his net on lockdown.
Last season, UMass went 13-18-5 and 9-14-4 in Hockey East to secure the eighth and final playoff spot. The year before, UMass won only six games. In 2009-10, UMass went 18-18-0 (13-14-0).
“Eighth place two years, seventh place for one — that’s not where we want to be,” said senior Kevin Czepiel.
Lately, Merrimack and UMass-Lowell have proven that Hockey East’s traditional framework — Boston College, Boston University, Maine, and New Hampshire atop the league — is no longer a given. There is no reason why Micheletto and his team can’t challenge for league titles.
“We have skill that maybe hasn’t been maximized,” Micheletto said. “We’re trying to get our guys to play with a little bit more pace than they have in the past. Practice has more pace. That leads into the game. I’ve been really impressed with our guys.”
UMass introduced Micheletto as Cahoon’s successor on July 16. Micheletto, a Dartmouth graduate, had previously served as Kevin Sneddon’s No. 2 at Vermont. Micheletto had been with the Catamounts since 2003-04.
At Vermont, Micheletto recruited current Chicago Blackhawks forward Viktor Stalberg and Providence Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller. In Amherst, Micheletto will have a setting similar to the one in Burlington: a college town and an underdog team where recruits will have a chance to play early and often.
“I like guys with an attitude and a mind-set that, ‘Nobody’s going to stop me and nothing can prevent me from getting my ultimate goal,’ ” Micheletto said. “Once that starts permeating the whole locker room, it’s kind of fun to watch. There are individual skill sets you’re looking for. But you can overcome some physical deficiencies with the appropriate mind-set and attitude. We’ll continue to try and do that here. It’s certainly what we were trying to do at my previous place.”
Micheletto’s short-term objective is to implement his system. Micheletto wants his players to be defensively sound — efficient positionally with good, strong sticks to bust up opponents’ plays. When the Minutemen secure the puck, they will have the green light to fly. It is a welcome change for players who have been instructed to be more conservative.
“Takeaways and transition are going to be a big, big part of what we do here,” Micheletto said. “So guys having that tenacity, having that good stick, being able to separate the body from the puck, then activating smartly into the play with as many guys as we can commit to try to generate offensive opportunities is really going to be the basic premise of everything we do.”
Micheletto plans to have ample amounts of spit and vinegar among his current roster. The Minutemen, battered by too many seasons of mediocrity, are angry and hungry. They didn’t come to Amherst — Pereira considered BC, BU, Providence, Vermont, Quinnipiac, and Yale — to accept regular lickings from Hockey East’s powers.
UConn went down on Friday. BC will visit next Friday.
“We’re going to be a hard-working team,” said Pereira, who led the Minutemen with 17 goals last season. “We’re battle-tested. We’ve paid our dues. We’ve gone through some hardships. We’ve lost some guys along the way. But this is the team we all want to be with. This is a family. No team’s going to have an easy way out against us.”