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Playoff Preview

UNH vs. Merrimack College

Friday at 7 p.m.; Lawler Rink in North Andover, Mass.

Saturday at 7 p.m.; Lawler Rink in North Andover, Mass.

(if necessary)

Sunday 7 p.m.; Lawler Rink in North Andover, Mass.

UNH is 12-14-5, Merrimack is 14-14-6

The time for talk is all but over. Records are wiped clean, regular season successes and failures are in the rearview and the focus is surviving and advancing. It’s Hockey East playoff time once again.

The Wildcats are quite familiar with their opening round dance partner. In a rematch of last year’s opening round series, UNH will once again battle Merrimack in a best-of-three series for the right to advance to the quarterfinal round.

Last year, despite going in as the lower seed, the Wildcats gave the Warriors a competitive three-game series. The ‘Cats took a 1-0 series lead after a 3-1 win  in game one. The following two nights belonged to the Warriors and Merrimack advanced, handing the Wildcats their first exit in the opening round or earlier since its existence in the Hockey East tournament.

This season, the Wildcats hold the edge with a 6-2 win and a 2-2 tie in the early stages of the season. This Warriors team is much different from when these two teams met in October, however. Merrimack was 3-3-1 when they met New Hampshire for the first time. Since that meeting, the Warriors have maintained a .500 record of 14-14-6 and have beaten the likes of Boston College, Boston University, University of Notre Dame and the University of Vermont, all with a home-ice seed or higher going into this tournament.

Merrimack’s recent success has been coming off the sticks of both Derek Petti and Jace Henning. In the past three games, Henning and Petti have combined for six goals and seven points overall. The Warriors have also posted a winning record in Lawler, at 8-6-3, proving that a win over Merrimack on the road will not come easy.

With players like Anthony Wyse and Dylan Maller expected to be in the lineup for the start of the playoff series, the ‘Cats will hope to have some much needed depth at the blue line for the first time in a while this season. The forward depth has taken a hit with players such as Shane Eiserman and Marcus Vela unlikely to return for the remainder of the season, but Wyse’s presence adds another big body for UNH to utilize especially with blocking shots.

As was the case in last year’s series, and numerous times this season, UNH’s Danny Tirone will have to bring his A-game. In 30 games started this season, Tirone has kept the ‘Cats within striking distance, making a heavy dose of 894 saves and averaging 2.97 goals against. In last year’s series, Tirone was a game-changer. In three games against Merrimack, Tirone made a staggering 132 saves while averaging 43 saves a game in the series.

The Wildcats had a less than ideal end to the regular season, losers of five straight games, UNH now has an opportunity to put the woes of the past behind them and make a fresh statement this weekend. As this league has proven before, anything can happen and the fans should be in for an exciting opening-round matchup.

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