DURHAM, N.H. – The rays of the hot summer sun have subsided, the leaves on the trees have started to fade from green to red, and most importantly the puck is ready to drop in Durham. After a long 580-day period that saw the world as we know it flip upside-down a few times, fans will finally be back at the Whittemore Center on Friday night to cheer on the University of New Hampshire (UNH) men’s hockey team at their season opener against Union College.  

Coming into the season the Wildcats are ranked No. 8 in Hockey East’s Preseason Coaches’ Poll, sandwiched between UMass Lowell and Merrimack. Hockey East play will remain extremely competitive for the Wildcats this season as the country’s top-ranked team and defending national champion UMass Minutemen will look to lead the pack. Hockey East also has three other teams within the United States College Hockey Organization (USCHO) Top-20 Poll including No. 7 Boston College, No. 10 Boston University and No. 11 Providence. UNH did receive votes but weren’t featured in the top-20.  

For the Wildcats, it’s been an interesting offseason. There was the departure of some key players including a few seniors who had an extra year of eligibility because of the shortened season last year. Notable departures included Angus Crookshank (Ottawa Senators), Kohei Sato (Bentley University), Patrick Grasso (New Jersey Devils), Ty Taylor (Grant MacEwan University), Benton Maass (Minnesota State) and Charlie Kelleher to graduation.  

Despite the losses the Wildcats return one key member to their team for his fifth season; goaltender Mike Robinson. Robinson, a third-round pick by the San Jose Sharks in 2015, will look to lead the ‘Cats in his fourth year as the starter. 

“We have depth throughout our lineup, and I think that extends to every single position, but I think Michael [Robinson] has proven that the best of Michael Robinson is really good. When Michael’s playing well, he’s as good as there is in our league,” explained Souza.  

Last year Robinson finished the season with a 5-12-3 record, a .881 save percentage and a 3.37 goals against average, all the worst marks of his UNH career. Following a down year, he will look to regain his prior form from his sophomore and junior year and be one of the top netminders in the conference.  

“[Robinson] being a fifth-year player certainly earned him the right to have the net, and then it’s his job to keep it,” said Souza. “Having capable guys behind Michael is a good thing for him. Where it goes in five or ten games, I can’t answer that for you, but we’re confident in our goaltending situation as of now.”  

Souza is entering his fourth season as the team’s head coach with a record of 33-46-16. Souza will turn to senior assistant captain Jackson Pierson for most of the team’s scoring. The forward led the team last year with 16 assists and 25 points. Junior defenseman Kalle Erickson will also be tasked as a key contributor on the offseason as he improved greatly last year during a breakout sophomore season with six goals and 12 assists. Other top pieces on the offense include 2020 Edmonton Oilers sixth-round pick, senior forward Filip Engarås, 2020 Nashville Predators sixth-round pick, sophomore defenseman Luke Reid, and fifth-year senior forward and assistant captain Eric MacAdams. 

As for the line situations for Friday’s contest, Souza declined to comment who specifically will be on the team’s top line but mentioned that Jackson Pierson has been skating consistently with senior Tyler Ward and first-year athlete Robert Cronin.  

On the defensive side of the puck the Wildcats will look for several players to hold down the blue line. Souza didn’t mention who would be starting on the point for the team on Friday, however a top line of senior captain Will MacKinnon and senior assistant captain Ryan Verrier is very likely. Erickson will also be a key contributor on the defensive side of the puck along with sophomore Luke Reid. 

MacKinnon also spoke to the media on Wednesday about the upcoming series against Union. 

“We want to win every game we play in; we’re looking at Union on Friday and we want to beat them Friday and Saturday and then keep going from there.”  

MacKinnon also added that he believes the teams biggest strength is their competitiveness.  

“We’ve been going at it every day at practice, competing with each other, pushing each other to get better and I think we’ll be a team that competes every single night,” he explained. 

UNH has six incoming first-year players including forward Connor Sweeney, defenseman Colton Huard, forward Robert Cronin, forward Will Margel, forward Liam Devlin, and 2021 Tampa Bay Lightning sixth round pick, defenseman Alex Gagne. The Wildcats also welcome two transfers to the team, junior forward Harrison Blaisdell from the University of North Dakota, and junior goalie David Fessenden from Alabama Huntsville.  

UNH will look to break their eight-year NCAA tournament drought when they square off against Union at the Whitt at 7 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday. Union was a team that opted out of play last year due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) so this will be their first contest since March of 2020. UNH holds a 6-4 record all time against Union with a 3-2-0 record at home. The two teams last met in 2015 when UNH took home a 5-2 win in Schenectady, N.Y. The Wildcats return to action two weeks on Sunday, Oct. 24, when they open Hockey East play against Providence College.  

Photo courtesy of Jack Bouchard