UNH Looks For Success in Hockey East Playoffs
Today, the college hockey postseason is upon us. For the University of New Hampshire Wildcats, it is a brand new season. After the Wildcats got swept by the University of Connecticut over the weekend, the Wildcats will look to start fresh. In a rematch of last year's first round series, UNH will travel to North Andover, Massachusets for a best-of-three series against the Merrimack College Warriors. Last year, Merrimack bested the Wildcats in three games.
This past weekend brought UNH fans exciting hockey and nostalgia as the four Wildcat seniors were recognized prior to Friday's game. In essence, the final weekend slate of games was exciting all over the collegiate divisions in the country and specifically Hockey East where we saw a three-team tie at the top of the conference.
The Wildcats went into last Friday’s regular season home finale with a chance to uphold a home playoff series, but just like the year before, the Huskies came in and spoiled the party. UNH scored fifteen seconds into the game as Michael McNicholas stripped the puck from a UConn defenseman at center ice, skated down the right wing, and flipped a backhand pass to Jason Salvaggio. He deked into the offensive slot and fired one past freshman goaltender Adam Huska for his 21st of the season.
The Whittemore Center was cheering at a capacity level, but five minutes later the Huskies knotted the game up after sophomore prodigy Tage Thompson wrapped around Danny Tirone’s net and fired a shot that consequently went off defenseman Cam Marks skate. At 10:13, UConn struck gold again as Kasperi Ojantakanen got a juicy rebound and buried it past Tirone to make it 2-1.
The Huskies never looked back in this one when at 18:20 of the second period Spencer Nass increased the lead to 3-1. His 15th goal of the season put a clamp on the Wildcats. Ojantakanen sent the apple his way on the play.
At the start of the third period, the Huskies added yet another goal at 8:54 when defenseman Philip Nyberg scored his first collegiate goal. Yet, the Wildcats made it interesting late when Hobey Baker Award nominee and senior Tyler Kelleher recorded his 21st goal of the year - a knuckler that danced its way past Huska from the far side faceoff circle. It was 4-2 and there was life for the comeback ‘Cats.
With only three and a half minutes remaining, Liam Blackburn scored his 7th goal of the season to make the contest 4-3 in favor of the Huskies. The Wildcats fired on all cylinders, but Huska was strong in net and with 27 seconds remaining, Ojantakanen buried the empty netter for his 2nd goal of the night. The Huskies won 5-3 and surely enough, had a stranglehold on the Wildcats heading into the last regular season game of the year down in Hartford.
Here are the highlights of Friday night's game courtesy of UNH Athletics:
On Saturday night, the Wildcats traveled down to XL Center to challenge the Huskies on their senior night and once again had to fight to try and salvage some points in the final regular season tilt.
The Huskies drew first blood at 3:38 of the first period and sent the crowd into a raucous. Max Kalter recorded his fourth of the season when the play came to Brian Morgan who fired a shot on Tirone and Kalter attacked the night and jammed it in.
Blackburn scored his second of the weekend and his 8th of the season to knot the game up at 1-1 at the 10:36 mark. Senior captain Matias Cleland directed a shot from the top of the offensive zone that ricocheted over to Justin Fregona who fed a pass to Blackburn waiting to fire a shot past goaltender Rob Nichols.
Then at 13:41 of the first period, UConn regained the lead 2-1. Thompson registered his 19th goal of the season when Maxim Letunov fed a pass to him from behind the net who one-timed the goal past Tirone.
UNH once again tied it up at 15:52 of the first stanza when Kelleher scored his 22nd goal of the season. The goal came on the power play that was not working on Friday night. Michael McNicholas was able to send one tape-to-tape across the offensive zone onto Kelleher’s stick who, to the right of Nichols, sent one airborne. The shot was deflected, but surely enough found the back of the net to make it 2-2.
The second period provided nip-and-tuck hockey to the fans where both teams had plenty of opportunities, but could not generate any goals. The game remained tied until 4:19 of the second period where Evan Richardson provided the hometown fans with one of the nicer goals you will see all season. Richardson picked up a loose puck in neutral zone and skated with it towards Tirone. After losing an edge and turning around, he was able to regain possession and flick a backhander past Tirone to put UConn up 3-2.
UConn never looked back as they tightened up defensively in the third period and Corey Ronan fired a shot into the empty net with 43 seconds left in regulation to solidify the weekend sweep with a final score of 4-2.
The win put the final touches on a second half that had its shares of ups and downs for the Wildcats but saw them skid down to 10th place at the end of the regular season. With the two wins, UConn surpassed them to take the 9th seed. Although it was a tough final stretch in the schedule, the Wildcats played teams such as Boston University, Notre Dame, and Vermont harder than most.
For Kelleher, he was able to win the Hockey East scoring title with 37 points in 22 conference games. It was the second straight year a Wildcat won the title. Last year, former Wildcat Andrew Poturalski earned the honors. You can vote for Kelleher for the Hobey Baker on their Facebook page.
Moving forward, the postseason is a brand new season. This conference is always a chess match and everyone starts out with a blank record. For UNH, they travel once again down to Lawler Rink where they hope for a different result than last year. Merrimack was able to snatch the 7th seed and will host the Wildcats in the best-of-three game series starting Friday at 7 pm.
Myself (Ben Nawn) and Brian Dunn will bring you playoff action on 91.3 FM WUNH Durham and online this coming weekend.