DURHAM – With eight of 11 teams qualifying for the Hockey East playoffs this year, the No. 1 goal for the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team was to be one of them.
Now that they are, the eighth-seeded Wildcats are confronted with the tall task of trying to take down top seed and second-ranked Massachusetts in a best-of-three quarterfinal series this weekend at the Mullins Center where the Minutemen are 15-1.
And they’ll attempt to do it with an offense that has scored just three goals in the last four games and eight in the last seven. The opener will be played Friday night (7) with the second game scheduled for Saturday night (7). A third game, if necessary, will be played Sunday night (7).
UNH (12-13-9, 8-10-6 HE) is 1-4-1 in its last six games and coming off a 4-0 loss at No. 9 Northeastern last week despite outshooting the Huskies, 35-24.
“We had some really good chances against Northeastern, and when you get really good chances you’ve got to score,” said coach Mike Souza. “I don’t think we’ve been hard enough around the offensive end lately. That’s where we have to score our goals.”
NU scored three goals on seven shots in the second period to break open a game that was scoreless over the first 23 minutes. The Wildcats have been blanked in two of the last four contests and held to one goal in three others during a recent seven-game span.
“We’ve got to be able to score goals,” Souza said. “It starts there and we can’t beat ourselves. The margin for error becomes multiplied tremendously when you don’t score.”
Three of the Wildcats top five point-getters have combined for zero points in the last nine games and a fourth has just one point in the last seven. That doesn’t bode well against a defense that is ranked fourth stingiest in Division I with a goals-against average of 2.06.
“We’ve got to crash and bang and get some greasy goals,” said senior captain Marcus Vela. “The not so pretty ones are in fact the pretty ones for us, so we’ve got to make them happen.”
The Minutemen (26-8-0, 18-6-0 HE) are 2-2 in their last four games, including a 4-3 loss week at playoff outsider UConn. UMass swept the season series from the Wildcats by scores of 5-1 and 4-2 with both games being played in November.
The Minutemen are ranked in the top 10 in nine categories in D-I, including first nationally in power-play percentage (29.5) and combined special teams, and fourth in goals per game (3.76).
“Obviously they’re in the NCAA tournament regardless of the outcome, but everyone still wants to win Hockey East so we know we’re going to get their best,” said senior alternate captain Ara Nazarian. “We need to give them our best because for us it’s lose (and) we go home.”
Despite the numbers, the Wildcats remain confident.
“A lot of people probably aren’t giving us the best shot,” Vela said. “They’re a good team, but so are we. … I think we can do some damage against them.”
UMass’s high-powered attack features five players with at least 12 goals and four with at least 34 points. Sophomore defenseman Cale Makar, a Hobey Baker candidate, leads the Minutemen in scoring with 13 goals and 42 points.
“They have guys that want to play with the puck,” Souza said. “They have high-end defensemen that want to play with the puck. We need to manage the puck. It’s hard for them to score when we have it.”
“The core of their team starts on the ‘D’ end,” Nazarian said, “so it’s imperative that we pressure them all night and make it hard for them,”
UNH hasn’t reached the semifinals of the Hockey East tournament since 2015 when the eighth-seeded Wildcats upset No. 2 seed Providence in the quarters behind the goaltending of Danny Tirone, who allowed only four goals in three games.
The Wildcats have to win Hockey East to make the NCAA tournament, a place they haven’t been since 2013. UNH will host the East Regional on March 29-30 at Manchester’s SNHU Arena.
“The pressure’s on UMass,” Souza said. “No one’s giving us a chance, and that’s fine with us.”