My grandfather once told me that it’s not how you start, but how you finish. He was the biggest UNH hockey fan when I was growing up. Well, right now I don’t know how he would react to the tough month and a half of hockey that we have seen from the Wildcats. I just know, it is what it is.
Currently, the Wildcats sport a 12-15-5, 7-9-4 Hockey East record and are in the ninth spot in the Hockey East standings. As Connecticut comes in looking to deflate the Wildcats’ sails for the second straight year, it is now or never for UNH puck to pick up the slack.
Last year at this time, I turned to my broadcast partner and now UNH alum Parker Wheeler and mentioned that the Huskies could spoil the party. In the last few years, the Huskies have improved and become a solid Hockey East competitor. I had a feeling they could come into the Whittemore Center and give the Wildcats trouble. Surely enough, they erased a three-goal deficit and were able to knock the Wildcats out of a possible home ice first-round advantage here in Durham. Instead, the Wildcats drew Merrimack on the road where they were bounced in three games and the season quickly ended.
Now, I’m not saying deja vu will occur again, but the Wildcats need to step it up. I know some of you would agree with me. On Friday night, they challenge captain Derek Pratt and the Huskies who are 10-14-8 with a 6-10-4 conference record and two points behind the Wildcats in 10th place. It will come down to who wants it more. Both are fighting for that home-ice advantage to open up the tournament. UConn will certainly need help and so will UNH, but the Wildcats can’t afford to lose both these games. After this weekend, the Hockey East tournament will take place and teams seeded 5-12 will challenge one another in a best-of-three do-or-die series. For the Wildcats, they need to take care of some home cooking and it all starts Friday.
Except, home cooking has been something short of encouraging this year. At 7-8-2 at home, the Wildcats once dominated in Durham. However, home performance has been less than stellar since I became a student in 2013. It will take a full crowd and physical play for the Wildcats to take down the Huskies Friday. This home-and-home series will make or break a team that has certainly shown signs of fight this year. Not to anyone’s surprise they head into the final regular season weekend with a perennial Hobey Baker nominee in senior forward Tyler Kelleher. Kelleher currently leads the nation in points (57), assists (37) and power play points (28) and can be voted for on the Hobey Baker Facebook page.
It comes down to the leadership and charisma that this senior class has. Led by captain Matias Cleland who leads the entire nation for defenseman in points with 32, the Wildcats need to huddle around these guys and get the job done. Danny Tirone, who has carried a bunch of slack this season with 869 saves to credit, which is first in Hockey East and fourth in NCAA, needs to be better than ever. With the star power and young legs, the Wildcats should not be in this predicament, but alas, they are. It’s time to finish strong and get ready for a brand new season.
Two years ago, the Wildcats were in a similar situation. They finished the season on a late run and used the momentum to get to the TD Garden and the Hockey East semifinals. Do I expect the same? No. Yet, I fully believe it can happen. The team has played well against some of the best this nation has to offer and the same can be done with the season on the line. It starts Friday night.
Ben’s picks: UNH over UConn 5-2; UNH ties UConn 3-3