Friday, February 10, 2017

UNH Captain's Corner: Untimely Losing Streak

UNH Captain Matias Cleland

When the UNH Wildcats walked off the Frozen Fenway field following a 2-2 tie with Northeastern University, they were near the top of the standings in Hockey East. UNH had already clinched the season series against Maine (4-point Sweep), UMass Amherst (Sweep), Merrimack (3 points), and Northeastern (3 points). Their in-conference record of 6-2-2 put them 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. A finish in the top 4 at the end of the regular season earns a first-round bye in the Hockey East Playoffs.

Series at Notre Dame

The weekend after Frozen Fenway, UNH travelled to South Bend, Indiana for their final regulation series against Notre Dame. This is the Fighting Irish's final season as a member of Hockey East. Next year, they will join the Big Ten Conference. Although Notre Dame began the weekend one point behind UNH in 5th place, they were ranked #14 nationally. On Friday January 20th, the Wildcats built a 2-1 lead on tallies by junior Jason Salvaggio (15th Goal) and freshman Patrick Grasso (15th). Notre Dame tied the game midway through the third period and the teams finished in a 2-2 tie following the overtime period. Here are the video highlights:

The tie improved UNH's record in Hockey East competition to 6-2-3. Unfortunately, it was the last point the team would earn for a while. A 3-0 loss to Notre Dame the next night was the start of a 5-game losing streak. Notre Dame captain Cal Peterson, a 5th round pick of the Buffalo Sabres, made 31 saves and handed UNH it's first shutout of the season. Junior goalie Danny Tirone made 40 saves for a total of 87 saves in the two-game series.

Home Series vs Providence

UNH returned home for a two-game series against Providence College on the last weekend of January. At the time, PC (4-6-2) was 5 points behind UNH (6-3-3) and ranked #19 in the nation. The opener was a tight game and featured outstanding goaltending by Danny Tirone and Hayden Hawkey. Both goalies made 27 saves but Providence scored two back-breaking goals. The first came on a faceoff play with just 1 second left in the opening stanza.

UNH turned up the offensive pressure outshooting PC 11-5 in the third period. However, with under 3 minutes left in regulation, the first line of Salvaggio-McNicholas-Kelleher got caught deep in the offensive zone and PC scored on a 2-on-1 breakout. The Friars added an empty net goal with 21 seconds left.

UNH had entered the Notre Dame series with the #1 offense in Hockey East. The 3-0 loss to Providence marked the second consecutive game the Wildcats had been shut out. They looked to rebound on Saturday night with former UNH stars Trevor and James van Riemsdyk on hand to sign autographs for hundreds of fans before the game.

For the 6th consecutive game, UNH surrendered the first goal of the game. Hobey Baker Award candidate Tyler Kelleher tied the score on a power play late in the second period. Providence went ahead 3-1 on consecutive goals at 4:50 and 13:44 of the third period.

With a couple minutes left in regulation, UNH pulled Tirone for an extra skater and sophomore defenseman Matt Dawson appeared to score UNH's second goal on a wrister from the top of the slot. However, following a video review, the referees disallowed the goal because Jamie Hill made skate-to-skate contact with PC goalie Hawkey immediately before the puck went between his legs.

With just 47 seconds remaining, Tirone went to the bench again and Kelleher set up Grasso with a pretty bang-bang goal. After the ensuing faceoff, UNH successfully added an extra skater for the third time in the final two minutes. Junior defenseman Cam Marks sent a wrist shot on goal with 15 seconds left and Kelleher backhanded the rebound toward the net but it was not to be. Here are the highlights of UNH's come-from-behind effort:

Although UNH ended January with a 3-game losing streak, their position in the Hockey East standings did not change substantially. Following the tie with Notre Dame on January 20th, the Wildcats had 15 points and were tied for 4th place with UMass-Lowell. Vermont (17 pts) was in 3rd, BU (20) in 2nd, and BC (21) in the lead. After the sweep by Providence on January 28th, UNH and UMass-Lowell had 15 points and were tied for 5th place. Notre Dame (16 points) was in 4th place, UVM (17) in 3rd, BU (20) in 2nd, and BC (25) in 1st. With Boston College and Lowell on the schedule for the first weekend in February, UNH did not want to lose any more ground.

Boston College & Lowell

The BC Eagles came to the Whittemore Center last Friday as the 8th ranked team in the nation (Overall: 16-9-2, Hockey East: 11-3-1). When they met in Chestnut Hill on November 8th, UNH overcame a three-goal deficit and tied the game 3-3 with 4 minutes remaining. BC tallied the game-winner two minutes later and added an empty net goal.

On Friday, UNH was not able to overcome the nagging problem of giving up the first goal of the game. In fact, BC scored 2 goals in the first 9 minutes. In a season of ups and downs, the UNH power play has been a consistent bright spot. The Wildcats still have the #1 power play in Hockey East and it came through against Boston College. In the final minute of the first period, the player with the most assists in NCAA Division I men's hockey set up UNH's first goal. Tyler Kelleher (16 goals, 31 assists) cruised along the goal line to the left of BC goalie Joe Woll and fed Patrick Grasso (17 goals, 11 assists) in the slot for a one-timer.

Building on the momentum of Grasso's goal, UNH knotted the game 2-2 soon after the puck dropped in the second period. Junior defenseman Cam Marks connected with sophomore Chris Miller flying through the neutral zone. Miller and sophomore Ara Nazarian entered the BC zone on a 2-on-1 break and Miller snapped a low wrister at Woll. Nazarian banged home the rebound for his 3rd goal of the season.

BC answered one minute after the Nazarian goal and, by the first minute in the third period, had built a 5-2 lead. Once again, the UNH power play sparked a comeback. With 8 minutes remaining in regulation, UNH had a 5-on-3 advantage. Associate head coach Mike Souza, who directs the power play, placed Patrick Grasso and junior Michael McNicholas below the goal line on opposite sides of the BC net. They passed the puck back and forth then McNicholas zipped it to Tyler Kelleher in the right faceoff circle. Kelleher fired a 3/4 slap shot over Woll's shoulder.

UNH made it a one-goal game with 3 and 1/2 minutes left on the clock. Marks made an exceptional play at the blue line keeping the puck in the zone and tapping it to Salvaggio. Jason carried it directly to the top of the slot and fired a wrister into the back of the net. The instant after Salvaggio released the shot, Boston College captain Chris Calnan took a cheap and dangerous shot at Jason's head (see video below). Calnan blind-sided him with a shoulder hit to the head (5-min major) and was kicked out of the game (10-min game misconduct).

The UNH fans who hadn't left the game early got the Whittemore Center rocking. With a minute and a half left in regulation, UNH pulled Tirone which gave them a 6-on-4 advantage. UNH Captain Matias Cleland fired a slapper from the blue line that was blocked. Then Salvaggio sent a cross-crease pass to Grasso who barely missed the conversion. BC potted an empty-netter for the 6-4 victory. Here are the exciting highlights:

After mounting two comeback attempts against Boston College in the energy-filled Whittemore Center, I wonder whether the team experienced a letdown on Saturday night down in Lowell. Whatever the reasons, 10th ranked UMass-Lowell blew out the Wildcats 8-2. Coach Dick Umile summed up the game succinctly - "They looked great, we were awful".

The 5-game losing streak has been costly. Entering this weekend's series at Vermont, UNH sits at 8th place in Hockey East, just 2 points ahead of Merrimack and Northeastern. Finishing the regular season in the top 4 will be a big challenge. The Wildcats are currently 4 points behind 4th place Notre Dame and Lowell. Finishing somewhere between 5th and 8th place and earning home-ice in the opening round (best-of-three series) of the Hockey East Playoffs is more realistic.

Captain's Interview

I had an opportunity to interview UNH Captain Matias Cleland about the team's recent down time:

Mike Lowry ("C-H-C"): Since our last Captain's Corner, the team played four teams nationally ranked in the top 16 - Notre Dame (16), Providence (11), Boston College (7), and UMass-Lowell (9). After a 2-2 tie out at Notre Dame, the team experienced the longest losing streak of the season (5 games) and the most lop-sided loss (Lowell 8-2). As you look back at that stretch of games, what were the biggest frustrations/disappointments? Did you take away any positives?

Matias Cleland: I think the biggest emphasis has been on scoring. We haven't been scoring enough goals in games to win. Obviously, the last game against Lowell had a lot to do with the defensive zone. We are making some changes that we will take into Vermont this weekend. I always believe that things are never as good as they seem and they are never as bad as they seem. Yes, we have lost some games to some good teams but we have Vermont coming this weekend. That's where all our focus is at as of now.

Mike Lowry: After falling behind 5-2 to Boston College last Friday night, the team rallied late in the third period to make it a one-goal game. Down at Lowell on Saturday, it looked to me like the team was a half-a-stride slower than usual. Was physical and/or mental fatigue a factor against the Riverhawks?

Matias Cleland: That was something I personally thought about. Those kind of games take a lot out of the guys. This was no excuse for what happened down at Lowell on Saturday. It was a bad game, and that's all there is to it.

Lowry: Despite being in and out of the lineup due to a hip injury, your classmate and fellow defenseman Dylan Maller has had the best season of his UNH career. He has tallied 3 goals, 7 assists and 14 blocked shots in 14 games and his +11 rating is the best on the team. Dylan has overcome personal tragedy and repeated injuries in his time at UNH. Would you talk about how Dylan has handled this adversity? Is there a chance he will return to the lineup this season?

Cleland: Dylan has definitely overcome so many obstacles in his time here at school. He has always taken his set backs in stride and looks at how to overcome them. He is facing some adversity right now but he is handling it well. I think we should see Maller soon.


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