Wildcats in the catbird seat as Hockey East hits stretch run
The month of January was far from perfect for the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team, and February wasn’t much better. But now it’s March, the Hockey East playoffs are on the way, and despite the lukewarm past two months, no team is in better position for the first big prize of the season than the Wildcats.
A logjam has developed at the top of the standings, with all conference teams having played 23 of 27 games. UNH, Boston College, UMass Lowell and Providence are dead even at 28 points, while Merrimack is one point back in fifth and Boston University is sixth with 26.
It’s a tight race for the regular season championship – more so than ever before, according to Coach Dick Umile.
“There’s always been two or three teams, maybe
three but usually two, and then everybody else is kind of fighting for the middle and then there’s a bottom,” he said. “This is two points from one to six. … You can’t try to figure this out right now.”
The standings could go in any direction, but the rest of the teams would love to be in the spot that No. 5 UNH (17-8-5, 12-7-4) is in now. The Wildcats have no teams in front of them, they have the easiest remaining slate of the top five teams (Massachusetts and Maine have a combined .359 winning percentage) and they’re the only team in Hockey East staying home for the last two weekends of the season.
“We think we’ve put ourselves in position to accomplish the goals we want,” senior forward John Henrion said. “Win the regular season, get home ice for the playoffs and move forward from there. … We’d like for there to be a little bit more room than there is, but we’re happy where we are.”
That being said, the Wildcats don’t completely control their destiny for the top spot. UNH could win out and finish with 16 conference wins, but if Boston College (which plays a home-and-home with Providence this weekend) does the same, the Eagles would finish with 17 wins and snag the conference title. Likewise, a four-game winning streak for UMass Lowell (which plays a home-and-home with Merrimack) would give the River Hawks, who went 0-3 against the Wildcats this year, a wins tiebreaker over UNH as well.
It’s the formula for a headache, which is why Umile is preferring to have his team focus on just two teams – the Minutemen this weekend, and heated rival Maine in the finale.
“It’d be nice if we could play well this weekend and go into (the Maine) weekend knowing what’s at stake,” he said. “That’s why we’ve just got to concentrate on UMass right now.”
The happiness and enthusiasm that came with a three-point weekend at Vermont was put to the test on the bus ride back to Durham last Saturday, as the start of the storm that hit the area meant a miserable five-hour ride through snow, sleet and crawling traffic.
Hardly a pleasant experience, but fortunately for UNH, that’s the last time the team will have to do any traveling at all for two weeks – if not more.
The Wildcats play their final four games on their home ice at the Whittemore Center, as Massachusetts visits tonight and tomorrow and Maine comes in for the following weekend.
Futhermore, as long as UNH doesn’t fall into the fifth or sixth spots, it’ll also host its Hockey East quarterfinal series, meaning the next venue the Wildcats would have to travel to would be the TD Garden in Boston for the conference semifinals.
“We’re happy to be home,” Henrion said. “That’s something you can’t pass up. You’ve got to take advantage of that, being in front of our own fans. … We’re lucky. That hasn’t happened to us in a while.”
To turn that edge into home-ice advantage or a regular season title, UNH will need to rediscover its prowess at the Whit from earlier in the year. The Wildcats won six straight games at home over the first two months of the season, but have gone 1-2-1 in the last four.
“We haven’t been the best at home, which is not traditional for us,” junior forward Dalton Speelman said. “We’re usually a very good team at home. … We’ve got to bear down on chances that we get.”
Thoughts on Massachusetts
UNH will be the only team on the Whit ice this weekend eyeing a regular season title, but it won’t be the only one playing with something on the line.
Massachusetts (11-17-2, 8-14-1) is currently hanging on to the eighth and final Hockey East playoff spot by a single point, and with a closing slate that includes UNH and Merrimack, the Minutemen will be fighting for every point they can get – and Umile knows it.
“No doubt about it, this is going to be a battle,” he said. “I’m glad that we are home, instead of playing out there. It’s just not a fun place to play out there.”
The Wildcats saw that for themselves in November, when they left Amherst with a 2-1 overtime loss, their first defeat of the season.
“They’re a quick team, they play at a very fast pace,” Umile said. “Their goaltending’s been up-and-down; otherwise, they’ve done okay.”
(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at email@example.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)