As much as Joey Abate tried to avoid the outside noise and block out any of the articles, tweets or negative fan reaction, he still heard it at times last season. Abate led the Mavericks and the country with 22 penalties and finished the season with 63 penalty minutes, which was tied for the most in the NCAA.
Omaha was 9-2-0 in games that Abate stayed out of the box last season and 2-8-1 when he was called for at least one penalty.
“Not that it didn’t affect me, but I just tried to not really pay much attention to it,” Abate said of that outside noise. “That’s more of a conversation between me and the coaches, so we talked about it and I’ve focused on not hurting the team with them (penalties) this season. But I get it, the penalty minutes are obviously something you don’t want and people aren’t going to be happy about them.
“You’re toeing the line and I feel like maybe I was overstepping that line a little bit, but now I feel like I’ve matured a lot as a player and I’m back on that line. I think I’ve been playing pretty solid through these first four games and a lot different from last year.”
Toeing the line is exactly the style of game the junior center plays. Abate said his focus this summer was on playing smarter but still playing the same effective style of hockey. It’s working so far.
“I’ve always been a player that kind of toes the line and I like to play physical and try to get in the dirty areas, but sometimes I know I’ve crossed that line last year,” Abate said. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a tough year and it wasn’t something I wanted since it hurt the team.
“So I’ve really been focusing on cleaning up my game and trying to help the team in as many areas as I can. Whether that’s staying out of the box, taking a hit, blocking a shot or taking a big faceoff, I’m just trying to do whatever I can.”
Through four games this season, Abate looks like a completely different player. Granted it’s still early in the season, but so far it’s a very positive sign for this Omaha team. His speed is as evident as it’s ever been in a Maverick sweater; he’s tied for a team-best +4 plus/minus rating and he’s also winning .547 percent of his faceoffs. This comes after posting a .437 winning percentage in that department last season, the lowest of Omaha’s four typical centers.
While he’s still playing that aggressive style, going to the net and finishing checks when he can, there’s one noticeable change and omission from his stat line: the penalty minutes. Abate is penalty-free through four games.
“It’s an easy line to cross sometimes,” Abate said. “It could be a penalty one period or night and not one the next, so you’ve really just got to be smart and find that happy medium where you’re playing hard and underneath the other teams’ skin, but you’re also not hurting your team and taking unnecessary penalties.
“Most of the time with me last year it was at times where we didn’t need to take a penalty and it gives the other team an opportunity to score.”
In addition to limiting the penalties, Abate said he spent a lot of time back home this offseason and once he got back to Omaha working on faceoffs. It’s part of his focus on becoming a more effective two-way center.
“I feel like in today’s game the faceoffs are everything as a center,” he said. “You want to start with the puck and if you start with the puck for the majority of the game you’re most likely going to win those games, so faceoffs were definitely a focal point for me this summer. A lot of technique work, a lot of studying — just everything.”
Although Abate is yet to show up on the scoresheet this season, he’s been involved in several different ways: creating offense, blocking shots, back-checking and penalty killing. His speed on that penalty kill unit has also drawn a couple of penalties and he was even awarded a penalty shot because of his effort in game two of the Lake Superior State series.
He’s also centering the line that has generated some of the Mavericks’ most offense between Matt Miller and Jack Randl. Abate hopes the offensive side of his game will follow, but more importantly, he hopes to keep building off the solid start to his overall game.
“I just need to keep building every week in practice,” Abate said. “Obviously I’ve had some good opportunities thanks to my teammates setting me up and I’d like to start putting the puck in the net now, but I’ve just got to worry about continuing to play smart and keep doing what I can to help us however I can.”