UNH men’s hockey: Merrimack, UConn outscore Wildcats 11-3 and widen the gap in Hockey East standings



Joshua Shaw, Sports Writer

DURHAM, N.H. — Walter Hill’s 1979 film, The Warriors, tracks the titular gang’s 30-mile trek from the Bronx to the comforts of Coney Island. As the Warriors reach their home turf and the sun begins to rise, one last obstacle emerges; Luther, a rival gang leader that incited the plot.    

In the passenger seat of a hearse, the antagonist rhythmically clinks three bottles together and tauntingly chants, “Warriors, come out to play.”   

Friday night, the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Wildcats (12-13-1, 6-10-1) stepped into the role of Luther and dared the Merrimack College Warriors (14-11-1, 9-8-0) to play. Like Hill’s cult classic, the Warriors survived, battered but victorious.    

For the Wildcats, their special teams sunk them in the 5-2 loss. Surprisingly, the main culprit in the loss was the usually-reliable penalty kill.    

Heading into the weekend, the Wildcats .894 penalty kill rate was fifth-best in the nation The unit faltered Friday, allowing a pair of power-play goals for the first time in two months.    

Merrimack sophomore forward Alex Jefferies scored the first of the two. The sophomore cradled the puck in the bottom of the left faceoff circle before he blasted it towards the net. UNH senior goaltender Mike Robinson’s 6-foot-4 frame surrounded the post, but somehow the puck found twine to tie the game and make the Wildcats vaunted penalty kill bleed. 

With 17:39 remaining and just a one-goal difference, Merrimack’s power play struck once more with some help. Junior defenseman Zach Vinnell volleyed a shot from the point. As Robinson readied himself, the puck found the stick of UNH junior forward Lucas Herrmann.    

The junior’s stick tipped the puck into the air. While Robinson rallied to make the first save, the puck trickled between his pads and past his crease to bolster the Warriors lead to two and allow them to coast to the finish line.    

“When your power play plays with confidence, you’re going to create some really good opportunities, and I thought we had that happen again tonight,” said Merrimack head coach Scott Borek.    

Unsurprisingly, the Wildcats 55th-ranked power play remained just as flat as it has all season. The lone bright spot came courtesy of first-year forward Robert Cronin. In the final minutes of the second period, the forward cranked the puck past sophomore goaltender Zachary Borgiel on a cross-crease goal to bring the game within one.    

Cronin’s goal was bittersweet. It was the only goal the Wildcats could muster during a five-minute power play and the only power play goal they scored on their six chances.     

Their sixth and final failure stung the worse of them all. With 2:10 remaining in the third and just a two-goal deficit, UNH had a six-on-four power play. The ‘Cats opened their two-man advantage with three shots. Merrimack’s defense blocked the first two while Borgiel shoved the third aside. 

Before UNH could fire a fourth, Merrimack junior forward Mac Welsher completed his hattrick with an empty-net goal that ended any hopes of a comeback and punctuated the Wildcats special teams’ struggle.    

 While special teams will wear the bulk of the burden for Friday’s loss, the defense and Robinson have questions to answer as well. The five goals allowed are the most since an Oct. 29 match against Providence College.  

UNH had a chance at redemption against the team that sent them spiraling downwards; the University of Connecticut (UConn) Huskies (14-11-0, 10-6-0). Yet on Heroes Night, the Wildcats were their own greatest villains once again with inopportune slip-ups.  

The Wildcats came unspooled during the second period, allowing three goals en route to a 6-2 loss. However, UConn’s second goal of the period was emblematic of the entire night.   

UNH junior defenseman Kalle Eriksson attempted to reign the puck in at the point, but UConn senior captain Carter Turnbull pickpocketed the defenseman. Turnbull turned on the jets and blasted down a clean sheet of ice on a breakaway. With a flick of his wrist, Turnbull beat Robinson to jumpstart the beginning of the end for the Wildcats.      

Turnbull’s marker represented UNH’s ability to do everything right except execution. UNH attempted 32 shots and yet only one found the back of the net. On three power plays, they only managed three total shots, all of which UConn’s senior goaltender Darion Hanson dispatched. They won the faceoff advantage 32-28, yet it too failed to swing the match.    

 “Tonight, I thought we came out with some good effort for the first period and a half, things didn’t go our way. The puck didn’t find the back of the net and it felt like every [defensive] breakdown ended up in the back of ours,” said UNH senior captain Will MacKinnon.  

The key for the Huskies defensively was the outstanding play of Hanson. The veteran netminder copiously stonewalled the ‘Cats and made 31 saves. Hanson also got some help from his defense, which blocked 12 shots.    

“I thought they blocked more shots and they certainly blocked more critical shots,” said UNH head coach Mike Souza. “[UConn] has a good team and just a real disappointing weekend for us.”   

Had the ‘Cats escaped the weekend with wins, they could have clawed themselves out of the bottom of the standings and improved their chances of hosting a playoff game.   

Instead, the Wildcats will continue to claim the ninth seed and have nine points separating them from the sixth-seed Huskies.    

Unfortunately, the road ahead does not get any easier for UNH. They’ll take on the University of Vermont (5-18-2, 3-10-2) before returning to Durham to host No. 14 UMass Lowell (16-6-3, 12-5-1) to close out next weekend. The following weekend, they travel to Orono for a two-game road series against the University of Maine (4-16-4, 2-12-2).    

While Vermont and Maine are currently the bottom feeders of the Hockey East, UNH has played its worst hockey of the season away from the Whitt with a 3-9-0 road record. Conversely, two of Vermont’s five wins and all four of Maine’s victories have come on their home ice.  In other words, the Wildcats must overcome their greatest weakness to find their stride.  

Regardless, Souza is determined to tackle the upcoming weeks without worrying about the recent skid. 

“Obviously the kids were disappointed,” he explained. “We’re disappointed and frustrated. But that does you no good this time of year.” 

Photo courtesy of China Wong