UNH Men’s Hockey: Wildcats Head Down to Providence For First Round Matchup With Friars


Andrew Gardner, Sports Editor

After five months on the ice, the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Wildcats Men’s Hockey team (11-20-3, 6-15-3) wrapped up its regular season last Thursday against the University of Vermont (UVM).

Following a closely contested 3-2 loss to UVM six days ago, the Wildcats are primed for an opening round matchup Wednesday in the Hockey East playoffs at Providence College to take on the Providence Friars (14-13-7, 9-9-6). The puck drops at 7:00 pm. 

“I think it goes without saying we’re excited to get down to Providence, it’s that time of the year and this is what you play for” said UNH Head Coach Mike Souza during a press conference Monday.

“Making sure that we get mentally and physically prepared over the next 48 hours… That’s our plan” Souza said. 

The Wildcats will play the Friars for the fourth time this year after they split the regular season series with them 1-1-1. On the road in Providence the Wildcats went 1-1 which includes their 2-0 win January 6 against the Friars, one of the biggest victories of the year. That win was the team’s first Hockey East win of the season as up until that point it sported a 0-10-1 record in conference play.

The win against Providence, highlighted by a shutout for UNH netminder David Fessenden, was the spark that sent the Wildcats on a strong second half push.

“That third time we played them (the game on January 6th) was kind of the start of us getting on our roll. That was a really big confidence game for us to win down there so we’ve got a lot of confidence going into that building.” UNH Senior Captain Chase Stevenson said Monday.

The Wildcats finished the end of the season on a 6-4-2 run after that game including picking up points in eight of their final 11 Hockey East games. In fact, since that meeting on January 6, both teams have been headed in different directions.

The Friars, who ranked as high as 8th in the USCHO polls on November 21, 2022, have since fallen out of the top 20 and didn’t receive any votes for the top 20 in this past week’s poll. Since the last matchup against the Wildcats the Friars have a 3-8-2 record.

Despite the Friars’ recent struggles, Stevenson expects the Friars to put up a strong fight against the Wildcats.

“I’m expecting the same type of team,” he said. “They play hard, they’ve got a lot of really good players, they’re well coached and so that’s something we need to be ready to deal with.”

This will be the second year in a row the Wildcats will open the playoffs away from the Whittemore Center. Last year the team lost a back and forth overtime battle to Boston College 4-3 in Chestnut Hill.

With many new faces and generally a younger team this year, the Wildcats will look to bounce back from that loss last year, despite having a less experienced roster than the Friars at the college level.

“These kids have played in games that have pressure associated with them, whether it’s in the USHL or junior level,” Souza said. “You get into playoff situations, game sevens. I know Nate (Leaman, Providence’s head coach) has guys who played at the World Juniors so you don’t really think about those things.”

Defense has been a key for the Wildcats this season and no defender has been bigger for UNH than Nikolai Jenson who often garners high praise from Souza. Jenson, who leads the Wildcats in +/- at a +7 rating, missed the last two regular season games with an upper body injury.

There was hope last Thursday after the UVM game that Jenson would be back for Wednesday’s playoff game. Souza confirmed these hopes on Monday stating that Jenson would return to the lineup.

In the Wildcats’ last eight games of the season, Souza platooned Fessenden and Tyler Muszelik, with each getting four starts in net. Fessenden, a senior, has started 22 games for the Wildcats this year, whereas Muszelik, a first-year, has started 12. Souza hasn’t been keen on showing his hand regarding the starting goalie before games all year as it’s often a mystery until the teams step onto the ice. He was tight lipped about his net minding decision for Wednesday’s game when asked about it last Thursday.

“We’ll make that decision in the coming days” he said.

UNH has had two extra days off compared to the Friars who played their last game on Saturday at home against Boston University. After last Thursday’s loss to UVM, UNH Sophomore forward Liam Devlin was appreciative of the team’s extra time off rather than having a shorter window to prepare.

“I think it’s a blessing for us just to work on ourselves right now as a team and get back to practice. It was a successful groove that we were in a couple of weeks ago, obviously it’d be nice to test out our skills against another team but I think at this point it’s time to get ready for that playoff game. Rest up and touch up on stuff after practice.” Devlin said in Thursday’s post game press conference.

With Wednesday’s game being single elimination there’s a lot riding on every shift for both teams. For many players this 60 minutes of hockey could be the last of their careers which adds even more to the stakes. 

“For us I think it (single elimination) helps to be totally honest,” Stevenson said Monday. “A seven game series against a Boston University or Denver may go a little bit different but one game? Anyone can win one game. It comes down to finer details, everything matters a bit more so you’ve got to play the right way and take care of the puck” Stevenson also said.

With a win against the Friars UNH would move on to play one of the two top teams in Hockey East in either Boston University or Merrimack on Saturday March 12. However for now the focus is locked in on the Friars and winning the Wildcats first playoff game since 2021.

The Wildcats are ready to go despite being the “underdogs” in this matchup as the 10 seed compared to the Friars who are number seven.

Stevenson has led the Wildcats on and off the ice all year as the captain and is ready for the winner take all matchup in Rhode Island.

“I can’t wait to be totally honest, I want the puck to drop, It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Photo Courtesy of UNH Athletics