UNH men’s hockey faces UMass Lowell for a pair this weekend

UNH Insider
Published: 2/27/2020 10:30:52 PM

DURHAM – The sprint is on.

Coaches tend to stress as a season progresses that the race to the finish is a marathon, not a sprint, and that it’s usually best to take the long view while at the same time taking things one contest at a time.

It’s now time for the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team, looking to play its way into the Hockey East playoffs, to take the short view.

The Wildcats are down to four games left in the regular season, starting Friday night at No. 12 UMass Lowell and continuing with a Star Wars Night rematch against the River Hawks in the Whittemore Center on Saturday at 7 p.m.

The Wildcats head into the weekend just outside a playoff a spot in the league standings and need to collect some Hockey East points over these final four, which also include a pair against No. 4 Boston College to close the regular season out next weekend (Friday on the road and Saturday back at the Whitt for Senior Night).

“A good team is not going to make the playoffs and have a chance to compete to go to the Boston Garden and the NCAA tournament,” said head coach Mike Souza. “I just know one thing: We don’t want to be the team that’s left out.”

The Wildcats begin the weekend in ninth place in an extremely tight playoffs race. Only eight teams make the league tournament. Merrimack College and Vermont are mathematically out of the running.

How many points UNH needs to secure one of the top eight spots is yet to be determined.

Northeastern and Providence are tied for seventh place. The Wildcats trail those two teams by just two points. Boston University is another two points ahead in sixth place. Teams receive two points in the standings for a win, a single point for a tie.

Providence may be UNH’s No. 1 target, thanks in large part to Merrimack. The Friars dropped a pair of games to Merrimack last weekend and are now in a precarious spot.

“Absolutely, I sent one of my buddies a text, and said thanks for the help,” said junior forward Patrick Grasso with a grin when asked if his team owed a debt of gratitude to Merrimack.

The problem for the Friars is they have only two games left. Both are against Maine, which is one of the hottest teams around. Providence plays Maine at home on Saturday and then finishes the regular season at Maine on Friday, March 6.

Providence and other teams ahead of them aside, the bottom line for the Wildcats is they must get some league points and get them against a pair of teams ranked in the top 12 in the country.

UMass Lowell is 16-10-5 overall and 10-7-4 in Hockey East and has its own goals for the stretch run. The River Hawks are looking to nail down a top four spot in the league and the home ice for the first round of the league playoffs that comes with it. They are tied for fourth with Connecticut going into the weekend, five points ahead of UNH. UMass Lowell also aims to improve its standing in the battle for an NCAA berth.

UNH is coming off a bye week and scored only two goals while being swept by Boston University, 4-1 and 3-1, in its most recent games two weeks ago.

The Wildcats need to get their offense in gear against one of the top goalies in the league and country in UMass Lowell senior Tyler Wall. His 2.15 goals against average is fifth-best in the league and his .930 save percentage is second-best.

“It’s kind of the simple things,” said Grasso on what the Wildcats need to do to score goals. “It’s cliché, but getting pucks to the net, getting traffic in front of the goalie. All the little things. More often than not, it’s not the pretty ones that go in. We’re just trying to get those garbage goals.”

UNH will likely still be without junior forward Charlie Kelleher, who has missed the last four games with an injury, Souza said.

Junior defenseman Max Gildon leads the team in scoring with seven goals and 18 assists for 25 points and Kelleher is close behind at 6-17-23. Grasso is at 12-10-22, sophomore forward Jackson Pierson at 2-17-19 and sophomore Angus Crookshank leads in goals with 13 and has five assists.

“We really, really need to focus on playing our style of hockey and being quick in transition both ways, with and without the puck,” Souza said. “Obviously find ways to generate offense and second opportunities. Wall’s going to make a lot of first saves so we’ve got to find a way to generate second opportunities around the net. One of the things that Lowell does is they eliminate a lot of second opportunities, so I think that’s going to be a huge key this weekend.”

The Wildcats don’t dwell a lot on the standings and playoff picture, Grasso said.

“We try not to think about it too much,” he said. “It’s similar to golf coming down the stretch: You’ve got to look at the leaderboard a little bit. It’s in the back of our minds, but it’s not something we’re focusing on. I think if we take care of our business, it’s up to us ultimately.”

The River Hawks are 1-3-0 in their last four games and 4-5-1 in their last 10 Hockey East games. Last weekend, they split with Massachusetts, winning 3-2 at home and losing 5-3 on the road.

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