North Andover, Mass. — It took just over a minute into Sunday’s decisive game three of the Hockey East First Round series against Merrimack for New Hampshire’s top line to hit pay dirt.
Tyler Kelleher passed the puck up to Michael McNicholas who quickly snapped off a shot that found its way under the bar and into the back of the net for a 1-0 Wildcat lead.
“I saw TK with the puck and I kind of looked for the net a little bit. I saw the opening. I just shot it and [Merrimack goaltender Collin Delia] was down,” McNicholas explained.
It was the type of jolt an underdog needs in a pressure-packed do-or-die game. It staked the Wildcats out to an early lead and it kept the home crowd out of it.
“We knew we had to come out hot. Getting that first goal was really big for us. We got that momentum right away,” said McNicholas, a junior from Manhattan Beach, Calif.
“It was great to come out and score quick just for our confidence. Coming into this weekend we were lacking in confidence until last night. That first goal just added to it,” said UNH coach Dick Umile.
Despite being outshot by a wide margin and having to defend with Merrimack possessing the puck for long stretches at a time, the Wildcats were opportunistic when they got their chances Sunday evening.
“We haven’t been getting those bounces late in the season. Coming into the playoffs you need those. Hopefully we keep that going into the next weekend,” McNicholas said after his team’s 5-2 victory.
Next weekend poses an enormous challenge for McNicholas and his teammates. The Wildcats, the No. 10 seed in the Hockey East Tournament, have the unenviable task of looking to upset No. 1 seed UMass Lowell at the Tsongas Center.
“They’re a really good team. The last time we played them they kicked our butt in the third period. We played really well against them early in the year. That’s the kind of game we’re going to have to play,” said Umile.
While Kelleher has been piling up the majority of the points, it was McNicholas who produced the most on the score sheet this weekend. He racked up two goals and three assists over the course of the last two games. Kelleher finished the series with a goal and two assists while the line’s left wing, Jason Salvaggio, had two goals and a helper.
“Teams rely on their top line guys to produce and score. Playing with those two is easy. We’re three different players and we mix well together,” said McNicholas.
McNicholas missed the first three games of the season, but the trio have been together for the past 33 games. McNicholas, who only had four goals and nine assists during his first two seasons at UNH, picked up his 30th assist of the season on Sunday to go along with his 11 goals.
“Confidence from the end of last year going into this year,” McNicholas began about his scoring touch this season.
“Opportunity and ice time, and being able to play with Kelleher and Salvaggio,” he continued. “Getting that chemistry going early in the season was big for us.”
McNicholas isn’t the only player to benefit from playing with Kelleher. Coming into the season, Salvaggio had just three goals in 40 games. The junior potted his 23rd of the season to put the game on ice late in the third period.
“I worked on my shot a lot this summer. The coaches harp on me to shoot the puck. I’ve been doing that a lot more this year and I’ve been lucky enough to find the back of the net,” Salvaggio explained.
Both McNicholas and Salvaggio are quick to heap praise on their Hockey East Scoring Champion linemate, Kelleher.
“He’s such a highly skilled player. He’s quick. He’s smart. Playing with him, he’s two steps ahead of everyone else. His vision is second to none. He likes playing in the corners for a small guy,” Salvaggio said.
“Hopefully the guy gets the Hobey [Baker] this year. It’s unbelievable. The kid has great hockey sense and it makes it easy for me,” added McNicholas.