New Hampshire Hockey Column: Wildcats finding their identity on the defensive end

THOM+KENDALL+FOR+UMASS+ATHLETICS

THOM KENDALL FOR UMASS ATHLETICS

THOM KENDALL FOR UMASS ATHLETICS

brackettlyons

The season for the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Wildcats (7-7-1, 3-5-1) hasn’t come without its bumps. They lost senior captain Will MacKinnon just a few weeks into the season due to injury, had his senior defensive partner Ryan Verrier get hurt the next game which caused him to miss a month, and have not had a consistent starting goaltender all year; not to mention it’s only the very beginning of December. There have been other negatives as well like a struggling offense, and the variable of an ever-changing forward lineup. Yet the team sits at 7-7-1. While play at times hasn’t been great, especially in Hockey East matchups, I think that there was a step taken against No. 8 UMass two weeks ago and then again versus No. 16 Harvard and Holy Cross this past weekend that for the first time all year, the team can truly build off.  

Against UMass, was it a six-point sweep? No. But the team played the defending national champions about as well as they have played anybody all year. On Friday 19, the Wildcats traveled down to Amherst to take on the Minutemen, which is a scenario that I certainly thought was bound to be rough. Up to that point the Wildcats had been outscored 16-4 in four road games, where they finished with a record of 0-4-0.  

But guess what? It went fine. And don’t just look at the box score because that doesn’t tell the whole story. UNH lost 0-3, which on the surface isn’t great as their road record fell to 0-5-0 with a negative goal differential of 15. However, there was some play in that game that certainly impressed. 

The Wildcats allowed a goal to the Minutemen midway through the first and continued to play them tight in a 1-0 game until they allowed another with just 2:01 left in the third. The Minutemen earned another goal on an empty netter late. So in reality, New Hampshire held UMass to just one goal for most of the night. 

Against Harvard the following Friday, the team shutout the 16th ranked team in the country in a dominant defensive performance, establishing the team’s identity as gritty and tough to score on.  

This team’s defense has been playing strong, which is something that I don’t think is being talked about enough. The young guys have made the biggest impression and have stepped up tremendously with the loss of MacKinnon and Verrier. First-year athletes Colton Huard and Alex Gagne, along with sophomore Nikolai Jenson have excelled on the blue line for this team. This is an incredibly talented group of young defensemen who are going to be trouble in the Hockey East for years to come. 

Each guy has played up a level in their own role. Huard came in from injury after MacKinnon went out, and we immediately saw him producing on the offensive side of the puck. He scored in his second career game, while also being a lockdown defender. This is a guy who’s already blocked 11 shots in his first nine games. Huard was also quarterbacking the second unit of the power play in that second game against UMass.  

Jenson has gained high praise from head coach Mike Souza, who has emphasized his importance to the team as being a gritty, physical defensemen. An asset that the team has lacked. As a sophomore he’s stepped into a top-four spot in this defensive core, logging top minutes with the likes of Gagne.  

Speaking of Gagne, the improvement in his game from the opening weekend against Union, to this past weekend against Harvard and Holy Cross has been evident. He’s more aggressive, making smart plays in the neutral zone, and has been tasked with major minutes on the penalty kill, especially in a key 5-on-3 situation two Saturdays ago which he helped to kill off. He leads the team in blocks with 18, and is a 6-foot-4, high-IQ player who has made his impact felt all over the ice.  

Having these guys step up lessens the pressure on MacKinnon and Verrier for when they return to full strength and shows that the future is bright here in Durham. 

The penalty kill is another unit that the defense excelled in these past two weeks. The team killed seven UMass opportunities on Nov. 20 improving their total to 48-of-53 (90.56%) on the PK this year. That ranks fifth in the country and second in the Hockey East behind Northeastern. 

Though the record is not quite there yet, we’ve seen improvements with this team over the past two weeks. They’ve faced three of the five toughest-in-league opponents that they’ll draw all year. If the Wildcats can take care of business against the middling teams in the conference coming up like Boston University, Merrimack and UConn, there is an opportunity to climb in the standings.  

We saw senior goaltender Mike Robinson put on one of his best performances of the year on Saturday and if he can figure things out, along with junior David Fessenden, this team is scary on the back end. They’ve allowed three goals or less in each of their last six games, which is a step in the right direction.  

The offense is still struggling, but we’re seeing individuals like senior Jackson Pierson begin to emerge, and you can tell that their confidence is growing. This is a team that outshot UMass 12-4 in the third period two weeks ago. They were also 1.1 seconds away from being the first team in Hockey East all year to defeat them in regulation.  

This is a team with promise, and although UNH isn’t atop the standings right now, things are looking up. This defense is scary, the goaltending is starting to work itself out and as Aaron Rodgers once said, “R.E.L.A.X.” 

Photo courtesy of Thom Kendall