UNH hockey notebook: Wildcats face tough Hockey East test this weekend with Lowell, BU

  • UNH forward Ara Nazarian (left) battles for position in front of the net against UMass-Lowell on Oct. 8. China Wong / UNH Athletics

  • Marcus Vela (right) chases the puck against UMass-Lowell on Oct. 8. Vela, who has a goal and a pair of assists in seven games this season, is ruled out to play this weekend as he recovers from an appendectomy. China Wong / UNH Athletics

Monitor staff
Thursday, November 09, 2017

DURHAM – After jumping out to its best start in five years, the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team faces its toughest test yet this weekend with two Hockey East opponents.

First, the Wildcats will play their third and final game of the regular season against UMass-Lowell (4-6-0, 1-5-0 Hockey East) in Durham on Friday. UNH (6-1-1, 3-0-1) is looking for the season sweep over the River Hawks after taking the first two games in their opening weekend back in October. On Saturday, UNH draws its first tilt with No. 15 Boston University (4-5-1, 2-2-1). Both games are scheduled for 7 p.m.

This weekend will measure the Wildcats’ strength since opening the year with five straight wins. That’s how UNH netminder Danny Tirone sees it.

“It’s a good test for us to see if we’ve continually gotten better over time more than other teams because everyone is working,” Tirone said.

The Wildcats had a slight hiccup in their 2-1 overtime loss to Colorado College on Oct. 21 followed by a 4-4 tie at Vermont on Oct. 28. They bounced back last weekend with a convincing 3-0 win over UMass-Amherst. It was Tirone’s second shutout of the year and the sixth in his career.

Tirone, who had to handle more shots than any other goaltender in the nation last year, says his confidence is continuing build with each win his team has captured.

“I’ve been pretty happy overall with how I’ve played,” said Tirone, October’s Hockey East goalie of the month. “You find yourself in the zone, my mind is a little bit quieter, things slow down and the puck gets bigger when it’s going well.”

On defense, UNH has improved significantly across the sheet from last season. The Wildcats have so far allowed 16 goals this season, the least they’ve given up in the first eight games of the year since 2012-13.

Special teams have played a major role in keeping the Wildcats on the winning side of its contests. UNH’s penalty kill was perfect last weekend keeping the Minutemen off the board despite giving them seven power-play opportunities. UNH is 10th in the nation in penalty killing at an 88.1 percent clip (37 of 42). On the flip side, UNH is seventh in the country on the power play, cashing in on 10 of 36 opportunities – the best in Hockey East.

Commitment to defense was an emphasis Coach Dick Umile drilled into his players leading into the season. He’s pleased with the results so far.

“Playing hard, backchecking, that’s a big part of the defensive part of the game, which we needed to do a better job with this year,” Umile said. “We didn’t play great defensively last year, and it’s not just when the puck is in the defensive zone, but how quickly we get back into defensive position. We’ve made it a priority and I think they’ve bought into it. It feels good, especially when you win, after working really hard.”

Lowell, the defending Hockey East champion, came into the season ranked fifth in the country. They opened the season 3-3 and were swept by a strong No. 13 Northeastern team with a high-powered offense two weeks ago. Last weekend, the River Hawks split two games with Maine and were ultimately outscored 8-5 at home.

As Lowell dropped in the polls, UNH continued to climb. The pair of losses to Northeastern led to Lowell being knocked out of the top 20 in the USCHO men’s poll. UNH broke into the top 10 this weekend at No. 9.

Poll position, even in November, gives the Wildcats a boost, but the players recognize there is a long road ahead to protect their spot and establish themselves as a contending team.

“We’re aware of it, but we try to stay even keel,” senior forward Jason Salvaggio said. “We all know we’re a top-10 team but we also know that can be taken away very easily.”

On Saturday, UNH travels to Agganis Arena to face the talent-laden Terriers. BU has consistently drawn NHL-caliber recruits, and this year is no different with 12 NHL prospects on the roster.

“It’s a huge weekend for us,” Tirone said. “Pretty big opportunity to make a statement in the league that we want to make. BU has a ton of skill, they always have since I’ve been here and they do again this year, so they’re a whole other challenge in themselves.”

Coach David Quinn’s Terriers will head down the road to face their neighbors at Northeastern on Friday before hosting the Wildcats Saturday night. BU is 1-3 over its last two weekends, most recently suffering a 4-1 loss to the Huskies on Saturday.

“It’s going to be tough going into their place,” Tirone said. “They (BU) haven’t had probably the start they wanted so they’re going to be hungry. We know it’s going to be really tough against them as it always has been.”

Salvaggio is hunting

One of the top scorers on the team last season with 23 goals and 13 assists, Salvaggio has gone three games without a point and hasn’t found the net since Oct. 14 when he scored twice against Colgate.

Frustrated? Yes, Salvaggio admits. Especially after hitting the knob of Colorado College goaltender Alex Leclerc’s stick three weeks ago and ringing another off the crossbar against Massachusetts.

Umile tells him to keep shooting, and he has. Salvaggio leads the team with 32 shots, ahead of freshman defenseman Max Gildon with 25.

The scoring chances are there, and Salvaggio says he’ll keep firing until they start trickling in again.

“Once you stop getting chances is when I think you start worrying a little bit more,” Salvaggio said. “Just try not to grip the stick too tight and try to get the shots on net and start finding the net.”

On the mend

Shane Eiserman has been ruled out again this weekend as he continues to deal with a knee problem, one that Umile described as a “ligament” injury. Eiserman did not skate this week and hasn’t played in a game since Oct. 20 against Colorado College.

Marcus Vela, recovering from an appendectomy on Oct. 29, skated Wednesday for the first time since the operation. He is not going to suit up this weekend, but Umile hopes he will be available when the Wildcats host Boston College on next Friday. Vela has a goal and two assists in seven games this year.

Sophomore forward Patrick Grasso recorded two assists against Massachusetts, his third game back since an offseason shoulder injury kept him off the ice for the first five games. The shoulder is still flaring up; Umile estimated Grasso is playing at “about 85 percent.” Since his first game back, Umile has slotted Grasso with his familiar linemates, fellow sophomores Liam Blackburn and Brendan van Riemsdyk.

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3339, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)