By Justin Loring, Sports Editor
It was the team’s goal since Christmas break, and on Saturday afternoon, the UNH men’s hockey team accomplished it : clinching home-ice in the first round of the Hockey East tournament.
With Maine’s loss to Providence on Saturday, UNH not only clinched the No. 8 seed in the tournament, but ends up with a match-up against UConn, a team they beat twice last week. The team is also on a five-game winning streak, the longest streak of the season, and the first time they’ve swept two consecutive weekend series.
Brett Pesce recorded a season-high three assists on the night, while Tyler Kelleher added another.
“If we ever had to put a gameplan together [on ice], that was it,” UNH head coach Dick Umile said after the game. “That was as good a 60 minutes we’ve played, that’s a difficult team to play against and we did the little things well. I liked the way our team finished.”
On Saturday night, UNH got off to a quick start to gain momentum. Grayson Downing notched the first goal of the game on a deflected shot. He carried the puck into the zone on a powerplay and fed it to Brett Pesce, who set up in the slot to get men in front of netminder Rasmus Tirronen. Pesce’s shot was in traffic, but Downing got his stick on the ice and deflected the puck into the back of the net. The referees reviewed it for an extended period of time, but ruled it a good goal.
“It was a scrum at the blue line … I saw I had some ice to walk in and saw Grayson on the side,” Pesce said. “I dished it to him, I don’t know if it went off his skate or stick, but it was a nice redirect.”
Pesce earned his second of three assists on the night just two minutes later in a 3-on-2 rush with Andrew Poturalski and Tyler Kelleher. Pesce fed Kelleher down low, who was covered by his man, but threw a behind-the-back pass out in front. Poturalski corralled it, dangled around a sprawling Tirronen and tucked home a backhand shot for his 13th goal of the season.
“I just beat my guy to the net and Tyler made an unbelievable play,” Poturalski said. “I don’t know how he even saw me, [but] he chipped it back to me, I made a fake and beat the goalie.”
The final tally came at the 15:15 mark of the second period when Poturalski recorded his second goal of the game. Kelleher received the puck following a turnover in the Merrimack end and pushed toward the cage. His first two shots were denied by Tirronen, who went down on the ice to thwart the attempt, but Poturalski found the puck and buried it, bringing the game to its final score of 3-0.
“Right now, we’ve finished the regular season as well as we’ve finished in a while,” Umile said. “Now we go into the playoffs, that’s another whole new season. But we’re going into the ‘new season’ with confidence and I like the way the team’s playing.”
Goaltender Danny Tirone earned the first shutout of the season for the Wildcats and improved his own record to 10-4-0 on the year. The defense made it as easy a weekend as possible for Tirone, who only surrendering one goal on Friday night and stopping all 11 shots he faced Saturday night. 27 shots in two games is the fewest UNH has allowed in a single two-game series all year.
On Friday night, the Wildcats faced a little bit of adversity as Merrimack was able to tie the game at 1-1 in the second period. The team buckled down, however, scoring two goals two minutes apart in the second period and adding a third period empty netter to win by a score of 4-1. Since Feb. 7, the Wildcats have scored at least 3 goals per game and won six of their seven games in that time.