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Wildcats forced from Hockey East playoffs

Hockey season is officially over at UNH.

The Wildcats went to battle with the Merrimack College Warriors in a tight three-game opening round series on the road, but fell short, losing two straight after winning the opening game. The offseason came especially early this year, as UNH has made it to the Hockey East Championship each of the past two seasons.

UNH finished with an overall record of 11-20-6, including 4-13-6 in conference play.

Sophomore goalie Danny Tirone had an impressive weekend and gave his team every chance to win, stopping 132 of 138 shots faced across the three games.

“He played great,” head coach Dick Umile said. “That’s who he is.”

Every minute of action between these two teams was hard fought, with every inch of the ice needing to be earned. The tone for the series was set in the opening game, when it took almost 35 minutes for the scoreless tie to be broken.

Junior right wing Tyler Kelleher tapped in a backdoor rebound late in the second period to give the Wildcats a 1-0 lead. Freshman right wing Marcus Vela added an insurance goal early in the third period on a broken play, by throwing a shot on net from the high slot following two blocked shots.

“Off the faceoff, a weird bounce popped out, and I just turned around and shot it,” said Vela. “Luckily enough, it went in, so it was nice to get.”

Merrimack cut the lead to one with just under eight minutes remaining in the game, but Vela sealed the deal with an empty net goal in the final minute, securing a 3-1 win. The ‘Cats pulled off the win despite being outshot 46-28 in the game.

Game two was a similar story, but with a different ending. The Wildcats entered the third period with a 2-1 lead on goals from Kelleher and junior defenseman Matias Cleland.

The Warriors were able to notch the equalizer at 7:59 of the final frame, sending the game to overtime.

UNH got into penalty trouble in the extra period, sending two men to the box within about four minutes of each other. The first penalty was successfully killed, but Merrimack converted on the second, ending the game on its 50th shot, forcing a third game. The Wildcats were badly outshot in the game, finishing with just 23 shots on goal.

The loss was “disappointing” to Umile, who said he felt his team “battled back after the first period” in which it was outplayed.

The final game of the series saw Merrimack enter the third period with a 2-0 lead following two second period goals.

The Wildcats began the final period on a long penalty kill, after Cleland was assessed a five-minute major and a 10-minute game misconduct late in the second for illegal contact to the head. They were able to survive Merrimack’s man advantage, which included a full two-minute five-on-three power play after senior forward Maxim Gaudreault was called for interference.

“They just hung in there and they did a great job in the kill to give us a chance,” said Umile.

Freshman defenseman Matt Dawson buried a power play goal midway through the third period to pull UNH within one, but it was too little, too late. Merrimack held on to its lead to send the ‘Cats packing with a 2-1, season-ending loss.

Gaudreault said he saw trends in this game and series that have been apparent throughout the entire season.

“This game kind of felt like the season as a whole,” he said. “It was another one-goal game where we couldn’t find ways to finish. The series was the same thing. We started up 1-0, and just couldn’t finish it. It wasn’t for lack of effort there at the end; we just couldn’t find ways to finish for whatever reason.”

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