The end of the Hockey East regular season brings on a playoff-type atmosphere. As of now, UNH is on the outside looking in, only two points behind Providence College and Northeastern who hold the seventh and eighth seeds in the tournament.
Pressure is mounting for the Wildcats, and their upcoming competition is the cream of the crop in the Hockey East. No. 15 UMass Lowell is currently in fifth place and No. 4 Boston College is atop the conference.
With four games remaining in the regular season, these next two weeks are littered with playoff implications. Of the 11 teams in the conference, 10 of which are in playoff contention. Vermont is the only team that has already been eliminated from the playoffs as they’re yet to win a game in the Hockey East this year.
UNH’s bye week only added to the urgency down the stretch. It’s easier to avoid following the standings during the season, but on the bye it’s hard not to. “We try not to think about it that much,” said junior forward Patrick Grasso. “It’s similar to golf… you have to look at the leaderboard a little bit.”
Senior defenseman and team captain Anthony Wyse is trying to focus on the task at hand, but as the season goes on thinking about the playoff picture can be inevitable. “We didn’t know [the Hockey East] was going to be this tight, but every single year since I’ve been here it’s been a tight battle to get into the playoffs,” he said. “That sense of urgency has to be there all year or else you won’t win a lot of games.”
While pressure is mounting, UNH head coach Mike Souza remains adamant about his team focusing on the task at hand. “At the end of the day what it comes back to is the only thing we can control is what we do here at UNH,” he said.
With only four games remaining, there is little room for relaxation in Durham. The incoming UMass Lowell team presents a formidable opponent this upcoming weekend. The River Hawks are coming off a split against No. 9 UMass Amherst, who is currently second in the Hockey East.
The Wildcats had a lot of praise for their next challenger. “[UML] is such a well-coached team. Well-balanced, hard to play against, detailed, structured. They do a lot of things well,” said Souza.
A key to UML’s success this season is their senior goalie, Tyler Wall. A constant between the pipes for the River Hawks, Wall has led a defense that currently ranks 13th in the country in goals allowed with 74. UNH ranks 29th with 87 goals allowed. A sixth-round draft pick to the New York Rangers in 2016, he is also fourth in the country in winning percentage.
The senior goalie received praise from Souza when he spoke about UML. “Playing UML, they don’t give up a lot… Typically, they don’t beat themselves. They defend well around their net,” he said. “Wall is as good a goalie us there is in the country, and it’s going to be tough.”
The implications are heavy this weekend with how tight the Hockey East is. “This year is as unique a season as I’ve seen,” Mentioned Souza. “We have teams toward the bottom half of our standings that are viable NCAA Tournament teams based on appearance. That’s a testament to the strength of our league and the strength of team’s non-conference results. It’s a very unique season.”
If UNH sweeps the weekend, best-case scenario they can skyrocket into the sixth seed depending on how the rest of the Hockey east plays out. A pair of losses will send UNH into a deeper hole.
The home-and-home series begins at the Tsongas Center in Lowell, Mass Friday with puck drop set for 7 p.m. On Saturday the two-teams head north for a bid at the Whittemore Center in Durham, N.H. at 7p.m.