By Justin Loring, Sports Editor
With its only exhibition game out of the way (a 2-0 loss to St. Francis Xavier), the UNH men’s ice hockey team can focus its attention on the first big contest of the year: a match-up with last season’s defending national champion Union College. The mood surrounding the team was that they played well, but have to make necessary improvements in order to be ready for Saturday.
“We played pretty well, but we have to put the puck in the net. That’s the name of the game,” captain Matt Willows said. “We’re gonna have to do that this weekend and continue on defensive play.”
Union finished the regular season last year ranked No. 3 and with a record of 32-6-4, best in the nation. The small liberal arts school, with an undergraduate enrollment of around 2,200 students, competes at the Division I level in hockey only; all other sports are Division III. The Dutchmen enter this weekend ranked No. 5 in the USCHO.com poll and No. 7 in the USA Today Hockey poll. The Wildcats are 5-3-0 against Union all-time.
UNH and Union faced off last season with a two-game series in Durham on Jan. 17-18. Union came out on top in both games, both by a score of 3-1. In the first game, Union dominated early on by scoring two goals in the first and adding another in the second to take a 3-0 lead. UNH scored 47 seconds into the third period, but were unable to generate any other scoring from that point on. The second game was much closer in style of play, with UNH responding to a first-period goal with score of their own from Tyler Kelleher about two minutes later. Union scored the go-ahead goal in the second period and added an empty netter late in the third.
After the exhibition match, head coach Dick Umile likened the Dutchmen’s style of play to UMass-Lowell: one that blocks a lot of shots and takes away the front of the net from the offense.
“We gotta find ways to get the puck to the crease and get [our players] to the crease area,” Umile said. “We will work on that, as well as improving defensively.”
Along with improving on the defensive end, Umile felt the team needed to find its identity among the forward lines.
“We’re trying to find our Top 9 [top three forward lines] … but I’m sure it will change a lot [over the season].”
Willows knew the importance of starting well and capitalizing on opportunities.
“It’s always big to get off to a big start,” Willows said. “Last year, it took us a while to realize it’s crunch time. We started packing towards the end and realized if we won a couple [more] games at the beginning of the year we’d be in a completely different situation.
“This year, it’s part of our identity to take every game like it’s just as important as the last one, so we don’t put ourselves in that predicament again.”
The key player for Union is goaltender Colin Stephens. Last year, Stephens ranked first in wins (28), second in shutouts (6), seventh in goals against average (2.05) and ninth in save percentage (.929). He was also listed as a member of the Mike Richter Award watch list, which is awarded to the top collegiate goaltender at the end of the year. His 28 wins were the best in school history.