The opening weekend of the season was on the minds of New Hampshire’s returning players since the schedule was released.
A home-and-home series against defending Hockey East Champion UMass Lowell presented the Wildcats with a chance at redemption. The River Hawks ended the Wildcats 2016-17 season in what was an ugly final game that seemingly was over before it even began.
"We had a bad taste in our mouth at the end of last year. We’ve certainly moved on, but we didn’t forget about it. It’s with you all summer and motivates you,” said UNH senior goaltender Danny Tirone.
“We approached it with no fear. We have a ton of respect for them and everything they’ve done,” added Tirone, an alternate captain.
The two games proved to be about much more than revenge. The weekend sweep of nationally ranked UMass Lowell served as an opportunity for UNH to show that it’s a much-improved team from a year ago.
The Wildcats scored a 4-3 road victory Friday when Shane Eiserman broke the tie with just 13.4 seconds to play in the game. On Saturday, UNH tallied three unanswered goals after trailing 1-0 after one period for a 3-1 victory. It marks the program’s first 2-0 start since the 2012-13 season when it swept St. Cloud State.
“It was a great weekend for us. The guys played hard. Winning two games against UMass Lowell is a huge weekend for us,” said UNH head coach Dick Umile.
Only nine teams allowed more shots on goal per game than UNH did a season ago. The blue line and the team’s play in its own zone was an area of emphasis during the off-season and in preseason camp.
“Defensively, we improved a great deal from last season. We’ve improved quite a bit there and we needed to,” Umile commented.
UNH allowed an average of 28 shots on goal over the two-game sweep, down over five shots from the per game average last season.
“We’ve improved in that area. As a unit we engaged and took away time and space,” said Umile.
The team’s play in its own zone has been a key talking point of the coaching staff since the team got together to prepare for the season.
“It’s been a huge focus of our team since we’ve been back on campus. The defensemen were great. It’s everyone. The forwards coming back to pick up guys on the rush, being hard to play against in zone, and closing on guys quickly and not giving them much time. A lot of blocked shots and grit. It’s why we were so good defensively this weekend,” explained Tirone.
Not breaking the puck out of the zone effectively was an issue that contributed to giving up so many shots and not having enough possession time last season. Simplification has led to better breakouts and a better transition game, according to sophomore defenseman Anthony Wyse, who scored the game-winner Saturday.
“Trying to make the simple pass. Last year we tried to force the homerun play. This year we’re focusing on just making the simple play. That usually eliminates turnovers. It leads to a quicker game for our forwards to get going,” Wyse said.
At least through one weekend, the team has bought into playing defense first and letting the offense come from that.
“Our biggest emphasis is taking care of our own zone and then the rest will take care of itself,” said Wyse.
Before the coaching staff could even begin to talk about defensive zone play with this year’s Wildcats, they were hard at work looking to improve an area of weakness.
Assistant coaches Mike Souza and Glenn Stewart recruited three new defensemen, including NHL Draft picks Max Gildon and Benton Maass, both of whom played key roles in the weekend sweep. Gildon and Maass help UNH improve its size and mobility on the blue line.
“They played very well. We put them out in key situations and they handled it extremely well,” said Umile.
Gildon, a third round pick of the Florida Panthers, came to UNH from the U.S. NTDP. The 6-foot-3 native of Plano, Texas had an assist on the game-winning goal Friday night. In addition, he was +3. His size, reach and feet allow him to close and take away space from opposing forwards.
Maass had an assist each night. The sixth round selection of the Washington Capitals is somewhat of a late bloomer, playing high school hockey until the end of last season when he joined Fairbanks in the NAHL. Maass showed off his mobility and ability to jump into the offense when he carried the puck in back of the attacking goal and sending a pass out to Liam Blackburn for the team’s first goal Saturday.
“Those two definitely don’t feel like freshmen. They’ve come in here and shown that they’re mature beyond their years,” Wyse complimented.
UNH will continue its five-game home stand with consecutive nonconference series against Colgate and Colorado College. The Wildcats will enter Friday’s game against the Raiders as the 20th ranked team in the latest USCHO.com Poll.