Allen Lessels' College Hockey: Few worries if Wildcats can win at Whit
So the last weekend of the University of New Hampshire hockey team's regular season comes down to this: a two-game White Out the Whit set against bitter border rival Maine with a Hockey East regular season championship within reach.
The No. 4-ranked Wildcats and the Black Bears play tonight at 7:30 and Saturday at 4.
"You look at it, 32 games into the season and we're sitting pretty good in the national picture and in Hockey East coming down to the last surge," said UNH coach Dick Umile. "It's a fun time of year. It's playoff time and you go for it."
Dartmouth starts its playoff run tonight against its major rival.
The Big Green, the No. 5 seed, takes on No. 12 seed Harvard at home in a first-round ECAC best-of-three series. The teams play tonight and Saturday at 7 and, if necessary, Sunday at 5 p.m. at Thompson Arena.
The Wildcats will go for it in Durham and at the same time keep an eye on what's happening around the league.
If they can take care of their own business against Maine, the Wildcats need worry only about what's happening with UMass-Lowell.
UNH, 18-8-6 overall and 13-7-5 in Hockey East, sits second behind Lowell in the standings. The Wildcats trail the River Hawks by a single point. They need two points to clinch home ice for next week's quarterfinals, but could do it with fewer points with help from other teams.
Boston College and Providence are tied for third, a point behind UNH. Boston University is fifth, three points behind UNH, and Merrimack is another point behind that.
Lowell, 21-9-2 and 15-8-2, plays Providence at home on Friday and closes out the season at PC on Saturday.
"They've got a tough series and ours will be tough as well," Umile said.
Maine is trying to keep its season alive. The Black Bears hold down the eighth and final Hockey East playoff spot by just a point over Massachusetts.
"Both teams are playing for a lot," Umile said. "Maine is fighting to get into the playoffs and needs to win. It's White Out the Whit. It doesn't get any better than that."
UNH, Lowell and Boston College go into the weekend in good shape to get at-large invitations into the NCAA playoffs if they don't win the league tournament and its automatic berth.
The three are tied for fourth in the PairWise rankings that mimic the system used to select teams for the NCAA tournament.
"If you're there at the end, that's awesome," Umile said. "The goal of the program is to be in the NCAA tournament. You can't win it unless you're in it."
The more immediate goal is a regular-season title.
"We just have to worry about getting the two points on Friday first," Umile said.
The Wildcats have won their last nine games against Maine at the Whittemore Center, their last loss coming on Feb. 5, 2005.
Maine has beaten New Hampshire three times at Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester in that span.
The Wildcats have two wins and three ties in their last five games, which ties them with Connecticut, Holy Cross, Notre Dame and Robert Morris for the second-longest unbeaten streak in the country. Lowell has the longest unbeaten stretch with seven straight wins.
UNH sophomore forward Matt Willows, who had one goal in his first 37 career games, has four in his last five.
"Guys like Matty Willows, once they get one in, they just keep coming," said senior forward John Henrion, who had a hat trick to lead UNH to a 4-0 win over Massachusetts on Saturday night.
Casey DeSmith, a sophomore goalie from Rochester, has given up three goals total in his last three games and made 25 saves for his fifth shutout of the season on Saturday.
"I said to him the other day after he got Defensive Player of the Week that it was about time they gave it to him," Umile said. "He said, 'I wasn't playing that well, coach.' The bottom line is he's playing well now."
Maine is 10-17-7 and 6-12-7, but has gone 5-3-3 in its last eight games, starting with a 4-1 and 3-1 sweep at Boston College in late January.
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THE BIG GREEN are 13-11-5 overall and 9-9-4 in the ECAC and have slipped to No. 19 in the PairWise.
Harvard is 9-17-3 and brought up the rear in the ECAC at 6-14-2 but is playing its best hockey of the season.
The Crimson are 4-2-1 since tying Dartmouth, 1-1, on Feb. 10. The Big Green won the first game between the teams this season, 3-2, in Hanover on Jan. 12.
Harvard beat Quinnipiac, the No. 1-ranked team in the country, 2-1 in overtime on Friday night on an Alex Fallstrom goal with 18 seconds left in OT.
Quinnipiac knocked off Dartmouth, 4-1, on Saturday night.
Freshman goalie Charles Grant has started the last three games for Dartmouth and has a 2.72 goals-against average and .912 save percentage for the season. Junior Cab Morris is at .917 and 2.10.
Sophomore Tyler Sikura leads Dartmouth in scoring with 10 goals and 18 assists for 28 points. Junior Matt Lindblad is at 9-14-23 and senior Dustin Walsh at 8-10-18.