DURHAM — The University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team has picked up the pace in its penalty killing production over the last few weekends.
The Wildcats will be out to stymie an opponent’s potent power play again this weekend when they square off against Boston University in a crucial Hockey East series for each team.
UNH and BU are deadlocked in fifth place in the Hockey East standings heading into the weekend. The teams are poised to move up into a coveted top four spot for the fast-approaching league playoffs. But they must also be wary of the teams below them in the standings.
The two-game set starts tonight at the Whittemore Center at 7 p.m. The series switches to Agganis Arena at BU for another 7 p.m. start Saturday.
UNH has had some rough times while killing penalties during the season.
The Wildcats have tightened things up while a man down recently. They have not allowed a power-play goal over their last six games. Previous to this stretch, they had held a team without a power-play goal in only three games total all year.
“We’ve been working on it a lot,” said sophomore center Filip Engaras. “We’re thinking of it and finding small details to be fixed and trying to simplify our game and I think that’s helped us a lot.”
UNH killed off all eight power plays it faced during its sweep of Vermont last weekend, a 6-3 win Friday night and 2-1 decision on Saturday. What’s more, Vermont had a two-man advantage in the first period each night: for 34 seconds on Friday and a one-minute, 30-second span Saturday.
“The 5 on 3, that’s a great kill,” Engaras said. “It’s a momentum switch, obviously, to kill that and transfer that into playing offense.”
Before Vermont, the Wildcats killed off all four penalties over two nights against UConn and they started their current run by killing off an even dozen while taking three points against then-No. 7 UMass with a 1-0 win and 1-1 tie.
The week before, No. 11 Providence had scored four goals in power-play chances in nine chances while the teams split a series.
Head coach Mike Souza credits assistant coaches Glenn Stewart and Jeff Giuliano with changes that have helped the penalty kill.
“Glenn and Jeff have done a nice job at addressing some of the issues,” Souza said. “They predominantly do the PK. I think we’ve made some tactical adjustments on it. It’s a couple of things. One, I think we’ve blocked more shots. I also think we’ve done a really good job off of lost faceoffs, just changing our points of pressure when teams have control of it.”
It comes down to some of the basics.
“Then it’s just a matter of executing, to be honest with you,” Souza said. “Clearing the puck, faceoffs and blocked shots. I think those are the three areas that you need to be excellent in in terms of killing penalties and I think we’ve been way better in those areas. Earlier in the year we tried to be a little more aggressive probably. Sometimes in our rink I feel you can get a bit stretched out. Yeah, you can get lost and teams hit a seam on you. I thought we did a better job of trying to reel it back in, playing in lanes. And we’ve done a way better job clearing pucks, winning faceoffs.”
Senior Liam Blackburn, junior Patrick Grasso, junior Charlie Kelleher (before missing the last couple of games with an injury) and sophomore Jackson Pierson have been among the forwards leading the way on penalty killing units.
“We’ve got a core group,” Souza said. “I’d like to get more guys involved in killing penalties. It just hasn’t worked out that way recently.”
Now comes BU. The Terriers are ranked third in Hockey East in power play with a 23.5 percent success rate, a couple of ticks ahead of UNH, fifth at 21.7.
They’ve scored power-play goals in bunches lately. Each of the last two Mondays, BU has played what has officially gone in the books as a 4-4 tie in the Beanpot tournament against a power team in Hockey East and the nation.
The games then continued to determine Beanpot winners. BU advanced in overtime against Boston College the first week and then lost this past Monday in overtime to Beanpot champion Northeastern.
The Terriers were 2-for-3 on the power play against Northeastern and 2-for-5 against BC.
A few weeks ago, BU went 4-for-7 with the man advantage in a 5-0 win over UMass Lowell.
Of particular concern for the Wildcats this weekend will be BU junior defenseman David Farrance. He leads Hockey East in power play goals with nine and leads the league’s defensemen in scoring with 13 goals and 22 assists for 35 points.
Farrance was a third-round pick of the Nashville Predators (No. 92 overall) in the 2017 NHL draft.