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UNH hockey: What to watch for vs. UMass Lowell

You had to flip through a little bit of history to get a sense for how UNH has fared recently against its previous three opponents: out-of-conference foes Minnesota, Michigan and Rensselaer.

Not the case this time. The Wildcats know UMass Lowell well. And the memories aren’t too fond for UNH.

The last time these two teams played was a tough moment for the Wildcats, as the River Hawks ended their season with a 2-0 win in the NCAA regionals. UNH had beaten UMass Lowell all three times during the regular season, but the River Hawks were a different team by March, and their defense completely stifled a shorthanded Wildcats offense (which was without Kevin Goumas and Grayson Downing) en route to a Frozen Four berth.

The rematch comes with both teams in minor funks. UMass Lowell is 3-3, having fallen from first in the country to 15th, and UNH is eyeing a turnaround after a 1-3-1 start.

Here are a few things to watch:

∎ The Wildcats get another crack at Connor Hellebuyck. The sophomore goaltender had an incredible freshman season (20-3, .952 save percentage, 1.37 goals against average) and stoned the Wildcats in his only start against them, stopping all 28 shots he faced in the NCAA tournament win. He lost his first two games this year, but any talk of a sophomore slump was quashed after he won his next two starts (even stopping 38 of 39 shots in a win at Michigan). UNH has had trouble scoring goals this year; if it can break through against a player who has been dominant in his career so far, it could be a turning point for the offense.

∎ Could Coach Dick Umile switch up the lines? The Wildcats are hardly falling apart, but with Hockey East looking particularly formidable (six teams are currently in the top 20) and a tough non-conference schedule this season, there’s not much time for them to try to find their way. The changes Umile has made throughout the season have been minor tweaks; the first line of Downing, Goumas and freshman Tyler Kelleher has remained intact for all but one game (the loss to Minnesota, which Goumas missed), while Dan Correale, Nick Sorkin and Dalton Speelman have formed the second line and Casey Thrush, Kyle Smith and Matt Willows have formed the third.

Willows is a player to watch. He’s quick and shifty, with a knack for finishing opportunities. Umile moved him up to the second line vs. RPI and Willows responded with a goal; pairing him with natural playmakers Downing and Goumas could make for a smooth mix.

∎ Both of these teams are looking for more on special teams. They both rank worse than 30th nationally in power play and penalty kill percentage; the Wildcats are 33rd in power play (16.7 percent) and 45th in penalty kill (78.3), while the River Hawks are 46th (12.1) and 38th (80.0), respectively. The units that step up in these two games could decide which team has a successful weekend.

UNH’s penalty kill struggles speak to the voids left by the graduations of Connor Hardowa and Brett Kostolansky. The Wildcats were first in the nation shorthanded for portions of last year, and finished second in all of college hockey in that stat. Hardowa and Kostolansky were the top penalty-killing blueliners, and the team has had a tough time early passing the torch.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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