UNH men’s hockey: Wildcats back to .500 after weekend sweep over No. 16 Harvard and Holy Cross

brackettlyons

WILDCATS 1, CRIMSON 0

WILDCATS 3, CRUSDAERS 2

DURHAM N.H. – This Thanksgiving weekend, the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Wildcats (7-7-1, 3-5-1) are thankful to get back to .500 after wins against the No. 16 Harvard University (5-3-1, 4-1-1) Crimson and The College of Holy Cross (3-12-1,2-5-1) Crusaders.  

The center ice of Bright-Landry Hockey Center is adorned with Harvard University’s crimson shield and their school’s motto of “Veritas,” which translates to “truth” in Latin. After three periods of play Friday night on that ice, two truths emerged for UNH.  

The first is that senior forward Jackson Pierson is blossoming into a star. Prior to this week’s game, UNH head coach described Pierson as “the team MVP” and it’s been hard to argue. Coming into Friday’s game, Pierson led the team with five goals scored, eight points tallied, 41 shots taken and three game-winning goals. The Indiana native solidified his stranglehold on all three stats with the lone goal of the game Friday night.  

It all started with a Harvard turnover Pierson pounced on. He then turned on the jets and rocketed by a pair of defenders to give him a breakaway with the only man to beat being junior goaltender Mitchell Gibson. Pierson pocketed the shot between Gibson’s pads to pierce the stalemate and hand him his sixth goal of the season, his ninth point, and thanks to UNH holding onto the lead, his fourth game-winner.  

Holding onto that lead was made difficult after first-year defender Alex Gagne was called for interference with 2:36 remaining in the third. As if silencing a regular power play wasn’t difficult enough, Harvard pulled Gibson with 1:03 to go to create a six-on-four advantage.   

During this opportunity, the Wildcats penalty kill unit didn’t allow Harvard to generate a shot. Instead, they were able to clear the puck twice to bring them back to full strength.  

This was the second truth to emerge from Friday’s tilt, the Wildcats’ penalty kill has become one of the best in the nation. After Friday, the Wildcats had killed 10 straight penalties to propel themselves to fourth in the nation killing 90% of all penalties.  

“I was really proud of our guys. We were in a similar situation last weekend against UMass, we had to kill a penalty late in the game. Penalty kill came through huge,” Souza said.  

UNH closed out the game’s final 36 seconds thanks to a wide shot and a save by fifth-year goaltender Mike Robinson, who earned his first shutout of the season.  

“I think that you shutout one of the best offensive teams in the country, I think [Harvard] is a team that’s going to be there at the end of the year, I think they’re an NCAA tournament team, I think that’s a big boost for our guys and certainly for Michael [Robinson],” Souza said.  

The Wildcats returned to the Whittemore Center 24 hours later and brought flashbacks of last week with them. With just two minutes to go and a one-goal advantage, thanks to senior Tyler Ward, all the Wildcats had to do was hold on.  

Where they faltered last weekend against the UMass (7-4-1, 5-2-1) Minutemen in this situation, they now had a chance to redeem themselves. Yet as Holy Cross crowded the net, the puck trickled loose from behind the net and found junior Crusader Bobby Young. As he charged towards the puck, Young used his backhand and lifted the puck past Robinson to tie the game. Souza blamed his defenders for the game-tying marker instead of Robinson. 

“There was nothing [Robinson] could do on the six-on-five,” Souza said. “We don’t tie up [their] sticks and they bang it in there. Nothing you can do on that one.”  

This moment invited another chance for repetition. Last weekend, UNH responded to a late game-tying goal with an overtime win and now had a chance to repeat that fate.   

However, the hero this Saturday night was not Jackson Pierson. Instead, senior forward Filip Engarås was cast in the role. The Stockholm native eased the puck onto his stick in the UNH defensive zone and had a clean sheet of ice in front of him. As he inched closer to the crease, he wristed the puck below the glove of Holy Cross’ junior goaltender Matt Radomsky and into the back of the net to give UNH their third OT win.  

“Honestly, I saw the puck kind of be on the board there, and I kind of just hoped it was going out into the middle,” Engarås said. “So, I just got it and I was just trying to score. I had a breakaway in regulation, so I just tried to do a move I’m confident in and it went in.”  

Holy Cross head coach Bill Riga said the goal shouldn’t have even counted. Riga pointed to UNH first-year forward Robert Cronin holding sophomore Jack Robilotti as a missed call that allowed Engarås to spring free.  

“They get a breakaway because they don’t call a hold on the last goal,” an exasperated Riga said. “That’s all there is to it. It should have been a power play. Instead they win. So watch the tape.”  

Regardless of the potential missed call, Souza said he’s proud of how the team has battled back from their 4-7-1 start.  

“I’m certainly proud of the way this team has played. You know, we faced some adversity with injuries, and then to get ourselves to .500 going into our last weekend of the year, I think it’s a very big accomplishment for this group. I think they’re really coming together.”  

Engarås felt that the team’s ability to split against UMass last weekend could be a turning point in the long run.  

“I feel like we’re starting to find our identity, and we’re building on that too,” said Engarås. “That was a huge week for us, so we’re just trying to build on that.”  

The Wildcats will look to keep building off the win when they head back to Massachusetts next weekend for a home-and-home series with the Boston University (4-9-2, 3-5-2) Terriers that will conclude the first leg of their season. 

Photo courtesy of China Wong