New Hampshire Wildcats 7-11-2 (2-5-1) Hockey East 10th
Massachusetts Minutemen 6-15-0 (1-10-0) Hockey East 12th
Unfortunately for the Massachusetts hockey team they’re having to play the New Hampshire Wildcats at the worst possible time. From the beginning of the season through early December UNH had just four wins. It looked like they were going to go into winter break in a dreadful slump, going 0-5-1 from 11/15 through 12/12. But just before everyone headed home for the Christmas holiday they beat rival Maine 7-4. Starting with that win they’ve gone 3-1-1 in their last five and have posted impressive wins over #12 Nebraska-Omaha on the road and #14 Providence this past Tuesday.
The Wildcats are a very balanced team. How balanced? Well they’re average goals for and average goals against per game are both 2.70. Their statistical ranking among Hockey East teams is pretty much in the middle of the pack across the board. They’re ranked 6th offensively and 8th defensively. Their power play is 6th best in the league while their penalty kill is 5th. It would seem then that they’d be middle of the pack in terms of standings too, but instead they’re 10th, just three points ahead of the Minutemen (though with three games in hand). The disconnect between their statistical ranking and place in the standings is because in addition to their two ties they’ve lost 7 games by one goal or one goal plus an empty net goal. They spent most of the first half of the season being a shift or a bounce away from winning. But it wasn’t until recently that they were able to get over that hump.
So what happened in that game against Maine before break and ever since? Well for one, Grayson Downing happened. The senior forward had four goals in the first 15 games. He has 8 goals and 11 total points in the last five alone, including the game winners against both Omaha and Providence. Needless to say he’s is absolutely on fire right now. Sophomore Tyler Kelleher hasn’t been too bad in that time either. In the last five games he has 2 goals and 5 assists. Needless to say UMass will have to be extra careful when those two players are on the ice this weekend.
When Casey DeSmith ran into trouble with the law during the offseason coach Dick Umile turned to freshman Adam Clark to take care of the crease and overall the big netminder has done pretty well on the season. His 5-11-2 record is more a product of all those one goal losses as statistically his .905 save percentage and 2.68 goals against average aren’t too bad. It’s unclear if UMass will see him for one, two, or no games this weekend though. Joining the Wildcats for the second semester was Daniel Tirone and in two games he’s been spectacular, picking up the wins against both the Omaha and Providence. In those two games he has a .947 save percentage and 1.50 goals against average. In front of either goaltender UNH has a very solid defenseman in Carolina draft pick junior Brett Pesce.
A few weeks ago consecutive weeks against Maine and UNH looked like a big opportunity for UMass to rack up some wins against the other poor performing teams in Hockey East. However, this looks like a Wildcat team that is starting to find itself and is probably not going to be the easier competition that the team had hoped for. Both offensively and defensively UNH is playing very good right now. UMass on the other hand continues to be inconsistent. This past weekend against Maine featured some of the best goaltending and defensive play we’ve seen in consecutive games all season. But their offense sputtered, scoring just three goals in two games against a defensively poor Black Bear team. Earlier in the season UMass was having no problem scoring, but were giving up 5, 6, 7 goals a game. They have to bring both parts of the game together.
Down the stretch it’s going to be important for the coaching staff to get the freshmen involved in the scoring again. In the first part of the season, cumulating with the AIC win, the freshmen were scoring 1.4 goals per game for the Minutemen. Since that time they’ve only scored 0.5 goals per game. They’re still generating roughly the same amount of shots in those time periods (10.8 vs 9.5), they’re just not finding the back of the net.
Coach Micheletto has said on the radio show and in postgame interviews that he’s very happy with the progress he’s seen since the team came out of the holiday break. And they have at times looked a lot better in that period, though they’re still just 2-3-0 in the five games in question. It’s also important to realize that in that times they’ve played one very good team (Providence), one average team (UConn), and two bad teams (Air Force, Maine). Coming out flat against Maine on Saturday after the uplifting, come from behind win on Friday was worrisome. However, if the Minutemen can get two, perhaps three Hockey East points from an improving UNH team then I think fans can buy into the idea that the team is finally starting to show progress versus their first half woes.
Beer The Triangle
Still trying to find that Berkshire Imperial Steel Rail!
The Collegian has their preview for the UNH series.
For a UNH viewpoint, here’s a preview from the Foster’s Daily Democrat.
SBN College Hockey has a great feature on Frank Vatrano, chronicling his journey to finally playing college hockey every night.