By Dylan Hand, Contributing Writer
After suffering a 4-0 loss to archrival Maine on home ice Jan. 24, the men’s hockey team was at a low point of the season. The Wildcats had a record of 8-14-2 and were going in the wrong direction fast. Freshman goaltender Adam Clark was pulled from the game in the third period after conceding four goals, in what would be his last start of the season. Something needed to change, and that change would turn the season around.
At the start of the season, Clark won the starting job out of the gate and started the first 17 games, but only won five of those contests. In that stretch, Clark had a 2.73 goals against average and .903 save percentage. Although both numbers were underwhelming, Clark did not receive enough goal support from his offense, which averaged 2.59 goals per game in the same stretch. Clark was letting in more goals than his offense was scoring — clearly a bad recipe for the ‘Cats.
On Dec. 26, freshman Danny Tirone joined the team as a walk on goaltender. Tirone got his first start on New Year’s Eve at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, who ranked No. 12 in the nation and finished at No. 9. He made 24 saves on his way to a 6-2 win. The goaltenders alternated starts for the next six games, until Tirone took over the full-time goaltending duties following a 5-2 victory over Notre Dame on Jan. 30. It would be the first of 16 consecutive starts to finish out the season.
While the 6-foot-5-inch, 220-pound Clark could use his sheer size and frame to take up the goal, Tirone, who stands at 5 feet and 11 inches and 175 pounds, did not have that luxury. Clark’s size allowed him to play his angles with more ease and success, while Tirone had to rely on his quickness and agility to effectively cover the same distances. With his speed and athleticism, Tirone always had a chance to make the diving or sliding, highlight saves, and this was shown most recently in his breakaway stop against Boston University’s A.J. Greer in the Hockey East Semifinal game.
Another advantage Tirone had was with his catching glove. Most goalies wear their catching glove on their left hand, but the right-catching Tirone could confuse shooters that were accustomed to shooting to his right. What would normally be a shot to the goalie’s blocker was now a shot right into Tirone’s glove.
Sticking with the newcomer Tirone turned out to be the right decision. The Wildcats went on to win the final five games of the regular season on their way to an eight-game win streak that had not been done since the 2006 season. The streak lasted from the 4-3 win over BU on Feb. 14 all the way to the Hockey East Quarterfinals against Providence.
The freshman netminder was at the top of his game during the streak. Heading into the Hockey East Semifinal game against BU, Tirone had an outstanding 1.14 GAA and .960 save percentage in his five prior starts. Tirone didn’t surrender more than two goals in any of those games and earned a 2-0 shutout against UConn on March 7.
Tirone received helped from his offense, too. In his 16 starts to finish the year, the team’s scoring jumped to 3.19 goals per game. The increased offensive output, combined with Tirone’s 1.99 GAA, proved to be the key to the team’s resurgence.
The Wildcats entered the Hockey East Semifinals playing their best hockey of the season, but the late-season rally was not enough to stop 18-year-old hockey sensation Jack Eichel and the top-seeded BU Terriers. Tirone made a strong 27-save effort, but the Wildcats fell to the Terriers by a score of 4-1. New Hampshire finished its season with a 19-19-2 record with nine of its wins coming in the last 11 games.
The future looks bright in the net for the Wildcats. Clark and Tirone both have a half season of experience, and that will put the team miles ahead of where they were at the start of this season. Unlike this past year, New Hampshire will know what to expect in net when fall rolls around as the two young goalies will battle it out once more for the starting job.