Wednesday, January 18, 2017

UNH Captain's Corner: Frozen Fenway

UNH Captain Matias Cleland

Back in the winter of 2008, the National Hockey League initiated the modern era of outdoor ice hockey games. They coordinated the construction of a portable, regulation hockey rink on top of the football field at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, New York for the first NHL Winter Classic. Trivia buffs will remember that the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Buffalo Sabres in overtime. It was a wildly popular event with 71,000 fans braving the elements and 3.75 million TV viewers watching in the comfortable indoors.

On New Years Day 2010, Fenway Park hosted it's first outdoor hockey game with the Boston Bruins downing the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime. Former UNH star James van Riemsdyk played for the Flyers. Over 38,000 fans packed the old ball yard and another 3.68 million watched on TV. Recognizing the popularity and marketability of outdoor games, Hockey East launched the inaugural Frozen Fenway event one week later. Boston University beat Boston College 3-2 in front of another sellout crowd.

In August, 2011, Hockey East officially announced an ambitious plan to stage a college-only, outdoor event in the Second Frozen Fenway. The original plan included matchups between UNH and the University of Maine and Vermont versus UMass Amherst on January 7, 2012. Later, additional games between BC & Northeastern, Harvard & Union, and Babson & Norwich were added to the schedule. On a mild, overcast evening before a sellout crowd, UNH rallied from a 4-2 deficit to force overtime against Maine but lost in overtime.

Since that Second Frozen Fenway battle between UNH and Maine in January, 2012, the number of outdoor college hockey games has rapidly increased. Between then and the end of last winter, 18 Division I men's hockey games have been played in outdoor venues from Boston to Denver and several cities in between. The Third Frozen Fenway in January, 2014, which included UMass-Lowell vs. Northeastern and BU vs. Maine, still attracted over 25,000 fans to the ball park. So, when Hockey East announced that UNH would be invited to the Fourth Frozen Fenway this winter, players and fans began to look forward to the spectacle with anticipation and excitement.

Last Saturday evening, the UNH Wildcats faced off against the Northeastern University Huskies under a clear, chilly sky at Fenway Park. UNH had defeated NU the night before in a come-from-behind, 5-3 victory at the Whittemore Center in Durham, NH. The UNH freshman line lead the UNH win with Patrick Grasso scoring 2 goals, Brendan van Riemsdyk adding a goal, and Liam Blackburn assisting on all three.

In front of a bundled up crowd of 16,432 fans, Northeastern got on the board first with a power play goal at the 13:04 mark of the opening stanza. An initial shot flew off the top of the crossbar behind UNH junior goalie Danny Tirone and floated toward the front of the net. Aston-Reese batted the puck out of mid-air, it slid across the crease, and Gaudette buried it into the open net.

Former Malden Catholic High School star Ara Nazarian tied the game 4 minutes later. UNH freshman defenseman Anthony Wyse, a native of Newton, MA, kept the puck in the NU zone along the half-wall, spun around, and flicked a wrist shot on net. Nazarian caught the puck with his skate, kicked it to his stick, and back-handed it home.

UNH took a 2-1 lead midway through the second period on a goal by former St. John's Prep (Danvers, MA) star Shane Eiserman. Eiserman gathered a loose puck behind the NU net, slid it to Nazarian who passed it out to the junior defenseman Cam Marks at the blue line. Marks sent a wrist shot toward the net and it bounced around in the low slot. Linemates Eiserman, Nazarian, and sophomore Marcus Vela were entrenched in front of NU goalie Ryan Ruck and Eiserman banged the puck between his pads.

Northeastern would tie the game 2-2 in the waning seconds of the second period. NU defenseman Jeremy Davies controlled the puck at the point and faked a shot as Patrick Grasso slid across the ice to block one. Davies then wristed the puck along the ice and junior defenseman Dylan Chanter tried to block it with his skate. The puck got by Chanter, he partially screened Tirone, and the puck slid past his left skate into the net.

Although UNH outshot Northeastern 9-7 in the third period and 1-0 in the five minute overtime period, neither team scored. After the game, UNH head coach Dick Umile said "If you can get three out of four points in Hockey East, it's a good weekend."

Captain's Interview

I had an opportunity to interview UNH Captain Matias Cleland about the Frozen Fenway game and the three-point weekend against Northeastern:

Mike Lowry ("C-H-C"): Any fan who has laced 'em up can fondly recollect their first times playing hockey outdoors. Would you share some of your memories of playing outdoors when you were growing up in Longmont, Colorado?

Matias Cleland: My buddies and I would get together to play on small lakes and ponds in Colorado every winter. Playing outdoors like that, is some of the most fun I've had playing hockey. We would always stay out way too long and usually get sick but it was worth it.

Mike Lowry: With all the fanfare and buildup to the Frozen Fenway game, what was it like to walk out onto the field, skate onto the ice, and take your first shift?

Matias Cleland: It was surreal. There was a lot that went into playing this game, and we have been looking forward to it since last year. We didn't just play at any baseball field either. It was awesome looking up when we walked out and seeing the "Fenway Park" sign. It was a memory I'll never forget, and I thought Hockey East and Fenway did a fantastic job putting the event on.

Lowry: As the game progressed, it looked like the ice surface was covered with more snow/icechips than in an indoor game. Did the conditions have any effect on the way UNH would typically play a game?

Cleland: The ice definitely got worse as the game went on, but it was the same for both teams. It was pretty hard to handle the puck as the game went on. We have some skilled forwards on our team so they weren't able to make some plays they usually are able to make. We talked before the game that we needed to keep it simple and shoot pucks whenever we get the chance.

Lowry: With all the extended TV timeouts, you and the rest of first unit appeared to play a lot of minutes. By the final period and into overtime, was stamina a factor?

Cleland: The TV timeouts definitely helped out a lot so we could get some rest. Stamina wasn't a factor in the game. After the game, I think we were all pretty tired but I don't think it affected anything in the game.

Lowry: With the come-from-behind, 5-3 win on Thursday night and the 2-2 tie at Fenway, the team earned 3 out of 4 points in the Northeastern series. You're now in fourth place, 1 point behind Lowell and Vermont, 2 points behind Boston University, and 5 points behind first-place BC in the Hockey East standings. You've played three fewer Hockey East games than BC. What are your thoughts on the weekend results and where the team stands in the race for the Hockey East season title?

Cleland: We have put ourselves in a pretty good position going down the stretch here. This weekend was a solid weekend for the team. Northeastern was a good team and they gave us their best effort. The win on Thursday night was a huge win for us. We stuck to the game plan being down in the third and we had been in this position before. It showed that we know how to win those tight games, which is how they will all be from here on out. I think we are improving every game, and we will play some good teams down the stretch here. We have distinguished ourselves as one of those good teams though. We're excited for the back end of the regular season.


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