DURHAM — Entering overtime Saturday night against then-No. 11 Northeastern, coach Mike Souza and his University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team felt the tension inside the Whittemore Center.
Over the past two seasons, though, playing in overtime has become almost as familiar to the Wildcats as their home sheet.
UNH looked right at home during the extra period, coming out as the aggressor and finishing the game off with Will MacKinnon’s goal that secured a 5-4 victory over the Huskies in front of 5,091 fans.
MacKinnon scored on a slap shot from the high slot 2:28 into the five-minute overtime period via an assist from Liam Blackburn. The goal was the sophomore defenseman’s first of the season and second of his career.
“I was coming off the bench, I saw Blackburn make a nice play to protect the puck and I just got myself into an area where he could give it to me and then shot it as hard as I could and it went in,” MacKinnon said after Saturday’s win. “I say I’m good for one (goal) a year so I thought I’d use it now.”
The Wildcats (13-6-2, 7-5-1 Hockey East) are 5-2-1 in overtime this season, tying the program’s single-season record for most OT wins set during the 1972-73 campaign. Twenty-two of UNH’s last 56 games have gone to overtime, including a school-record and NCAA-leading 14 last season.
“We’ve been in a lot of one-goal games over the last two years,” MacKinnon said. “I think it’s familiar territory and we don’t let the nerves get the best of us.”
The Wildcats led 3-1 after two periods before Northeastern outscored them by the same margin in the third period to force overtime.
UNH senior captain and defenseman Anthony Wyse did not play Saturday after coming down with the flu. Souza said he assumes Wyse will be available for this weekend’s home-and-home series against Hockey East-leading Providence College (13-5-5, 7-4-2).
Saturday’s win also moved UNH to 8-1-0 at the Whittemore Center this season, a record that includes victories over then-No. 15 Boston College, intrastate rival Dartmouth, then-No. 2 University of Massachusetts, Michigan and the Huskies. The Wildcats’ home wins over BC, Dartmouth and Michigan were also overtime bouts. Northeastern entered Saturday with a six-game winning streak over the Wildcats, five of which were shutouts.
“The two years I’ve been here, coach (Souza) has talked about making this the toughest place to play in college hockey,” sophomore forward Eric Esposito said after UNH’s 4-1 home triumph over Yale Jan. 3. “That’s how it was when he was (playing) here and the guys take a lot of pride in that and a lot of pride in the community around here. We get a lot of fan support so we just try to give back and get wins.”
Souza said every team likes playing at home but the Wildcats are going to have to win on the road over their final 14 regular-season games, which are all against Hockey East competition. The top eight of the conference’s 11 teams qualify for the Hockey East tournament. UNH, rival Maine and Connecticut are all tied for seventh place in the league standings.
UNH will take a 2-6-1 road record into its series against Providence this weekend. The Wildcats will play at Providence Friday night at 7 and host the Friars the following night at the same time.
“Let’s be clear: you need to win on the road,” Souza said. “For whatever reason, we’ve gone out and executed here better than we have on the road. ... It’s a matter of just going out and playing the game the right way on the road. We haven’t done that consistently but it’s a new opportunity to do so (this) week. But we all know they’re a real good team so it’s not going to be easy.”