UNH hockey midseason review and can’t-miss games in 2018

  • Michael McNicholas looks to pass in UNH’s offensive end as Merrimack’s Ludvig Larsson pursues during a Hockey East matchup at the Whittemore Center in Durham on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017. Helene Bartsch / UNH Athletics

  • Eric MacAdams (19) controls the puck near center ice with Merrimack’s Sami Tavernier in pursuit during a Hockey East matchup at the Whittemore Center in Durham earlier this season. Helene Bartsch / UNH Athletics

Monitor staff
Published: 12/23/2017 12:16:18 AM

Winter is in full swing, the presents will soon be under the tree and University of New Hampshire men’s hockey coach Dick Umile is halfway through his 28th and final season behind the bench in Durham.

Let’s shake out the notebook and share a few thoughts on what is and what could be for the UNH Wildcats as we get ready to welcome a new year.

Missed chances

If the Wildcats closed the first half of the season with a pair of wins on Dec. 9 and 10 against Army and Merrimack at home, this column might be starting on a slightly more positive note. Instead, UNH dropped both contests by the same score, 4-3.

Umile is never happy after a loss. What coach is? The veteran bench boss can sometimes find the silver lining when talking to the media, but losses at home make him boil.

“That was Christmas for us, and we lost both games,” he said last week. “If we won both of those games, right now we’d be very happy – extremely happy – with our first half.”

The most frustrating thing about those two games is that the offense seemed to be waking back up. The weekend prior, UNH scored three goals in two games against Providence, including a 1-0 win on the second night. The following Wednesday, UNH blasted RPI, 6-3, on the road. The Army game came three nights later and Merrimack the evening after, ending a run of five games in nine days.

UNH’s pulse in the offensive end held steady against Army and Merrimack with three goals each night, and Umile was pleased with that. The issues came up in the other end.

“We didn’t play bad hockey,” Umile said. “We just ... we got three and they got four and how we gave them up was not good. We cut down on scoring opportunities as good as we’ve done, but when you add it up at the end of the game, they got four. Three happens to be a magic number in hockey – you want to get to three. We usually try to get to three, but we gave up four.”

Speaking of magic numbers

A glance at the results of these first 17 games and the trend is clear: the Wildcats’ offensive firepower has cooled off since UNH started the season with five straight wins and a 6-1-1 record.

After averaging 3.88 goals through the first eight games, UNH’s average has dropped to 2.44 in its last nine. That includes a 6-3 shelling of RPI on Dec. 6 when five Wildcats scored, led by senior forward Jason Salvaggio with two.

The Wildcats’ season began with an unexpected weekend sweep of UMass-Lowell, the defending Hockey East champions. But the Riverhawks got one back when they returned to Durham on Nov. 10 and left with a 2-1 win. Starting with that loss, the Wildcats have scored two goals or fewer in five of their last nine games.

When the second half begins Friday at Dartmouth, Umile is looking for his team to create more scoring in even-strength situations, and the goals don’t need to be pretty.

“We need to generate some scoring chances 5-on-5,” Umile said. “The power play typically does a good job with it. The penalty kill has been excellent. We need to create goal scoring 5-on-5 whether they’re ugly goals, a second shot, a rebound, net front, getting in there and doing whatever to get the puck in the back of the net.”

Freshman defenseman Max Gildon leads the team in goals with seven. Senior forward Michael McNicholas is the top points earner with 17 and is the only UNH player inside the top 100 nationally in points scored. Ara Nazarian, Brendan van Riemsdyk, Salvaggio and McNicholas are tied for second on the team with five goals apiece.

Taking in all 17 games, UNH is still a top-20 team nationally with a 3.12 goals per game average. The early-season production that lifted the Wildcats to that number needs to come back in the second half.

Tirone needed a break

Umile said he may have been mistaken in starting UNH netminder Danny Tirone in all 17 games so far, particularly at the end.

“Maybe that’s a decision I should have made,” Umile said after UNH’s 4-3 loss to Merrimack on Dec. 10. “I could put the blame on myself, you know, playing five games in nine days. After the RPI game we talked that maybe we would do that and I didn’t.”

Tirone ranks 23rd in the nation with a goals-against average of 2.48. Freshman backup goalie Mike Robinson, a Bedford native and San Jose Sharks prospect, has played a total of 48 minutes and has allowed one goal on 20 shots. Senior backup Adam Clark has one save on one shot through 6½ minutes on the ice this year.

The busy stretch provided a perfect opportunity to give Robinson his first start and Tirone a night off. We’ll see if Robinson gets the nod at some point in the second half.

Snap shots

Biggest surprise so far: Benton Maass. The freshman blue-liner was playing high school hockey in Minnesota a year ago and has held his own this season against players two, three and four years older in Division I. He’s often on the ice against the top line of UNH’s opponent.

Biggest letdown: UNH’s loss to Boston College in Durham on Nov. 17. Nobody was more frustrated than Ara Nazarian, whose shot at a wide-open net was robbed by BC netminder Joseph Woll in one of the most impressive saves this writer has seen at any level of the game. The shot would have tied it, 3-3, with six minutes left. Instead, UNH had to settle for a 3-2 loss.

Special teams: The Wildcats have been solid protecting the net with one of their own in the penalty box. UNH is second nationally in killing penalties at a clip of 92 percent, a significant improvement over 79.9 percent last year. The power play has done well in stretches. UNH has scored 15 goals in 70 power-play chances (21.43 percent, 21st in the nation). Those 15 goals account for about 28 percent of UNH’s scoring production overall.

Appointment viewing

Here are five home games in the second half that UNH fans should circle on their calendars, whether they see it live in Durham or online via ESPN3.

Note: These are all Hockey East games, and I don’t intend to seem biased against nonconference matchups. The reality is that conference games dominate the second half and UNH has just three out-of-conference matchups left: Friday at Dartmouth (ECAC), Saturday versus Yale (ECAC, also played at Dartmouth), and home versus Brown on Jan. 6. From Jan. 12 through the end of the regular season in February, it is all about Hockey East for the Wildcats.

UNH vs. Boston University, Jan. 12: UNH will look to get even after being hit hard with a 4-0 loss at Agganis Arena on Nov. 11.

UNH vs. Vermont, Feb. 10: Dick Umile bobblehead night. Enough said.

UNH vs. Maine, Feb. 14: Whiteout the Whitt will be held on a Wednesday, which seems odd. Nevertheless, it’s usually an exciting atmosphere when the Wildcats welcome their border rivals from Maine. Attendance has been shaky (based on official figures, UNH has averaged 4,080 spectators this year for a 6,501 capacity facility), but if fans and students are going to pack the stands for any game, it’s usually this one. These teams are neck-and-neck in the standings currently and there should be playoff implications when they meet in February.

UNH vs. Northeastern, Feb. 24: The Wildcats close out the regular season against arguably the top team in Hockey East. The Huskies are a point behind Boston College as of this writing. We’ll have to wait and see who has the edge at the end of the season. Northeastern defeated BC at Conte Forum on Dec. 9, the Huskies’ first win at Chestnut Hill since 2008.

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

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