UNH men’s hockey hopes to earn home-ice advantage in Hockey East tournament

Monitor staff
Friday, February 23, 2018

DURHAM – The University of New Hampshire men’s hockey closes the regular season with a home-and-home series against No. 11 Northeastern this weekend.

The Wildcats (10-16-6, 5-12-5 Hockey East) still have a shot at earning home ice for the first round of the Hockey East tournament, which begins March 2, but they’ll need to come out of the weekend with at least three points (a win and a tie would do it) and get a lot of help elsewhere in the league.

All 11 teams in the league automatically qualify for the tournament. The top five get byes to the quarterfinals while the bottom six square off for three-game series in the first round.

Northeastern locked up home ice in the quarterfinals with their sweep of Vermont last weekend. The Huskies head into the final weekend of the regular season third in the standings, three points behind league-leading No. 20 Boston College.

New Hampshire (15 points) sits 10th in the league and will need to climb to eighth this weekend to host a first-round tournament series.

Massachusetts took over eighth place Thursday night with its 3-2 win over Connecticut. The Minutemen (18 points in Hockey East) close their regular season Saturday at Providence. Also in the hunt for home ice is Vermont (17 points), which begins a two-game series with Boston University on Friday.

A lot of this is out of UNH’s control, but Umile and his players are aware of where they stand. For now, they insist the focus is just on Northeastern. Beyond that, they can only watch where the chips will fall.

“We still have an opportunity (to get home ice),” UNH coach Dick Umile said Wednesday. “We know we can play. We know we can win – we haven’t, but we’ve had every opportunity to win those games.”

UNH is 2-10 in games decided by one goal. It’s been a thorn in the program’s side all season. The Wildcats have one win going all the way back to Dec. 9. Six of their last seven games have ended in either a tie, an overtime loss, or a regulation loss by one goal. This includes a 1-1 tie at Northeastern on Feb. 2, the only time the teams have previously met this season.

“We haven’t won as many games as we’d hoped, but we’re right in every game,” junior forward Ara Nazarian said. “No one is blowing us out. We have a lot of one-goal games that easily could have gone our way with a couple puck bounces here and there.”

Lucky bounces won’t be enough against Northeastern, which carries perhaps the most talented top line of forwards in the country with Adam Gaudette, Dylan Sikura and Nolan Stevens. Gaudette is the nation’s top scorer with 27 goals and 24 assists (51 points) in 32 games. Sikura is right behind his teammate at second with 45 points in 29 games.

Northeastern leads Hockey East in offense, averaging 3.44 goals per game this season, ahead of second-place Boston University with 3.19 per game. New Hampshire is tied with Massachusetts averaging 2.66 goals per game, eighth in the league.

Putting the right skaters on the ice against Gaudette, Sikura and Stevens will be a challenge for Umile on Friday.

“It’s really difficult when you’re on the road because you don’t get the last change, and they play them so often,” Umile said. “They might put them out there every other shift, or for that matter every three. They’ll use them in all situations, and rightfully so. They’re a talented group.”

If he had the choice, Umile likes the balance of speed and power coming from Nazarian, Marcus Vela and Charlie Kelleher. The trio has served as UNH’s first line of forwards in nine of their last 10 games. Nazarian and Kelleher are quick skaters and Vela’s 6-foot-1, 205-pound frame adds a physical edge.

The Huskies balance their offensive firepower with discipline on defense. They’re first in the league with 71 goals allowed, 14 fewer than New Hampshire at third.

“They obviously have one of the top lines in college hockey with Gaudette, Sikura, and Stevens,” UNH senior defenseman Cam Marks said. “So we’ve got to focus on those guys, shut them down, maybe frustrate them. If we can shut them down, we basically shut down half of their offense.”

Puck drops Friday night at Matthews Arena in Boston and Saturday at the Whittemore Center in Durham. Both games are scheduled for 7 p.m.

(Nick Stoico can be reached at nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)