The “Game of the Week” feature looks slightly different this week. As the Beanpot Tournament looms over the next two Mondays, the Hockey East schedule mixes and matches to accommodate the schools not involved with the Boston school’s annual tournament. Instead of the usual home and home series this week, it’s a mishmash for the other schools. Sprinkle in COVID rescheduling for good measure to boot.
That being the case, this weekend’s focus is on three schools in the bottom half of the table that still have a chance to finish in the top half of Hockey East. The University of New Hampshire Wildcats, Merrimack College Warriors, and the University of Connecticut Huskies have only five points. The Warriors lead the trio and are currently in sixth place (24 points), followed by UConn in seventh (23 points), while the Wildcats are in ninth (19 points). Boston College (20 points) is just ahead of the Wildcats and will host first-place UMass-Lowell on Friday.
UNH plays at Merrimack on Friday and Connecticut at home on Saturday.
Merrimack will then host Maine on Saturday at 7:00 pm.
“There’s a big six points on the table this weekend,” said UNH freshman forward Liam Devlin. “We’re obviously trying to take all six of those.”
“Merrimack’s really hot right now but we’re confident that we can play with them, make plays, stay in either of those games, and win both those games,” said Devlin.
“They’re two different teams, they’re both doing well right now,” said Devlin of the Warriors and Huskies. “They’re right around us in the standings too. It’s tight right now in Hockey East and we want to get all six points this weekend for sure.”
The Huskies, meanwhile, will host Providence on Friday at 7:05 pm before traveling to Durham for the Saturday game against the Wildcats.
The last time UNH played, they split with UConn two weeks ago. The Wildcats won Friday 3-1 and fell in overtime 3-2 on Saturday. Both games were in Hartford, CT, at the XL Center.
“The Energy’s been good, the intensity’s been good. That’s to be expected from this group,” said Wildcats coach Mike Souza. “They understand its crunch time at this point of the year. They’ve responded at practice accordingly but its a lot different when you get into actual competition on Friday and Saturday. But we like where we’re at in terms of our energy, competitiveness, health and all that.”
“Merrimack is probably the hottest team in the country,” said Souza of the weekend competition. “They’ve been firing on all cylinders. I know they had that game at UConn (3-2 loss), but that was on a Tuesday night, after a real high of another big sweep, back-to-back sweeps of two really strong teams in Lowell and Providence.”
“Our focus has been on Friday,” said UNH’s fourth-year head coach. “It’s been on putting practice together to prepare ourselves for Friday. Having played Connecticut last week makes the preparation of the turn-around for that game on Saturday a little easier in terms of pre-scouting and understanding their tendencies but our focus is on Friday.”
“I told our guys this is the biggest week of the year for us in terms of preparation,” added Souza on the importance of this two-game stretch. “Its the biggest weekend of the year for us in terms of competition.”
“That time of year, standings, playoff time, it’s all what you do in the second half,” said Souza. “This is what’s exciting about college hockey right now. You start getting into February, everything is heightened, everything matters a little bit more. The juices get flowing, you get excited, not that you’re not excited to play in October or November, but it’s little bit more meaningful right now. It’s fun, to be honest.”
“There’s definitely that excitement going into each weekend now,” said sophomore defenseman Luke Reid. “Especially with staying so close, every game counts. Everyone wants to win.”
UNH defenseman Colton Huard was named the Hockey East Defensive Player for his January play. The 6′-3″ freshman posted four goals and five assists in five games during the month as the Wildcats went 4-1.
Merrimack’s Liam Walsh, however, was named Hockey East Player of the Month for January. Walsh, a junior from Bridgeville, PA, had 10 points (4 G, 6 A 10 P) in eight games to bring his total to 6-14=20 on the season.
The Wildcats (12-11-1, 6-8-1 Hockey East) and Warriors (12-11-1, 7-8-0 Hockey East) have yet to face off this season. Friday is the first of two games between the schools. The second game will be Saturday, February 26, at the Whittemore Center on the UNH campus with a 7:00 pm puck drop.
Merrimack lost to UConn (12-11-0, 8-6-0 Hockey East) on Tuesday, January 25, 3-2 at UConn. The two will play their second and final game on Tuesday, February 8, at Merrimack’s Lawler Rink. Their two-game series was initially in December before COVID.