The University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team entered last weekend tied for sixth place in Hockey East with an opportunity to better its chances of hosting a league quarterfinal series. After two 7-4 losses to Connecticut, the Wildcats find themselves having to claw back into the Hockey East playoff picture this weekend.
UNH (13-11-2, 7-8-1 Hockey East) is in ninth place in the 11-team league standings entering its two-game home series with last-place Vermont (3-18-4, 0-13-2). The Wildcats will host the Catamounts both Friday and Saturday night at 7.
The top eight teams at the end of the regular season will qualify for the Hockey East playoffs. The top four will host the bottom four in the quarterfinals. Five points separate the league’s top nine teams. Boston College (16-7-1, 10-5-0) and Massachusetts (16-9-2, 9-6-2) are tied for first place with 20 each.
“We talk all the time about how the game — when you do things the right way, it has a funny way of rewarding you and when you don’t do things the right way, it has a funny way of knocking you down,” UNH coach Mike Souza said. “I thought last week we didn’t play to our standard and we got knocked down a peg…As good as you’re feeling about yourself one day, you can be feeling the complete opposite a day later.
“That’s the beauty of the league, though. It’s just the grind of the league.”
Souza said the Wildcats did not lack effort but also did not execute defensively en route to allowing an uncharacteristic 14 goals last weekend. UNH’s 7-4 loss to UConn last Friday marked its first time allowing seven goals in a game since falling to Michigan State by the same score on Nov. 7, 2015.
“We’ve had more focus in our defensive end, for sure,” junior forward Joe Sacco of UNH’s approach in practice this week. “We gave up a good amount of goals (in) both games so I think just tightening up in there and we’re good.”
The Wildcats will try to secure a much-needed four league points this weekend without forwards Charlie Kelleher, Kohei Sato and Chase Stevenson.
Kelleher, who leads the team in points (23) and assists (17), suffered a lower-body injury in UNH’s loss at UConn last Saturday. Sato, who Souza said leads the team in points scored during five-on-five play, will skate for Team Japan in the Pre-Olympic Qualification Round 3 Tournament Thursday-Sunday in Jesenice, Slovenia. Stevenson (three goals, six assists) has missed four games since suffering an upper-body injury in UNH’s 5-1 loss to Providence Jan. 18.
Souza said the team has been experimenting with line combinations during practice this week, including moving center Liam Blackburn (three goals, nine assists) to left wing skating alongside Patrick Grasso (11 goals, seven assists) and fellow center Filip Engaras (five goals, six assists).
“Obviously you can’t replace guys like that but you can definitely find different ways to contribute,” Grasso said. “It’s just (about) guys finding different roles that they might not normally find themselves in and taking the opportunity to show what they’ve got.”
UNH has gone 7-3-0 after a loss this season and will look to improve that mark Friday against a Vermont team that has gone 2-7-2 since returning from winter break and owns a 1-9-3 road record. The Catamounts have played in — and lost — eight one-goal games this year.
Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon announced Wednesday that this season will be his last coaching college hockey. He has led the Catamounts for 17 seasons and coached at the collegiate level for 27.
“We’ve got to take care of our own business this week,” Souza said. “There’s more focus on us playing to our identity, our standards this week than there has been all year and that is in no way disrespectful to Vermont at all.”
Wenczkowski not allowing an injury to derail her final season at UNH
Growing up, Taylor Wenczkowski‘s uncle taught her to find the good in everything, an outlook she identifies with so much that she has it tattooed on her arm.
The redshirt senior wing from Rochester has leaned on those words over her final season, which has been hampered by an ongoing injury, for the UNH women’s team.
Wenczkowski led the Wildcats in goals (20) and points (26) last year, which marked career-highs in both categories. While the injury has impacted aspects of her game like her shot power and accuracy, the UNH tri-captain has made adjustments and found other ways to contribute.
Wenczkowski, who said she will probably have surgery after the season, has recorded a career-high 13 assists and is second on the team in points (19).
“I definitely think that’s improved,” UNH coach Hilary Witt said of Wenczkowski’s ability to find teammates. “I also think when you score 20 goals in a season, your opponents are going to lock down on you a little more...She’s done a good job of distributing the puck a little bit more this year and sometimes that’s what you have to do when they try to take you out of it.
“As long as she’s having fun and just playing the game, she’ll find success either way.”
Wenczkowski, a Virtual Learning Academy Charter School of Exeter graduate, has also put a focus on her defensive play this season.
“No one wants to deal with an injury that impacts a little bit of their game but I think looking at that, I’ve been able to work on my defensive game as well — blocking more shots, (I) played center for a couple weekends, work more of a role in the D zone and on the penalty kill and everything,” Wenczkowski said. “What comes with the bad or frustrating, there’s always the good.”
Wenczkowski has recently been skating alongside senior Meghara McManus and freshman Annie Berry. The three first played together in UNH’s 3-0 and 5-2 victories over Holy Cross Jan. 24-25, over which they combined for five goals and five assists. Wenczkowski ended a seven-game pointless streak with two goals and two helpers on the weekend.
“We were sitting on the bench and I was like, ‘All right, let’s make our goal to get a scoring chance every shift,’” Wenczkowski said. “I think that was our focus — just trying to put the puck in the net and play as little defense as possible. It’s always a lot more fun to play in the offensive zone than the D zone.”
Wenczkowski assisted on McManus’ goal that came during four-on-four play in UNH’s 3-1 victory over intrastate rival Dartmouth on Tuesday.
The Wildcats (14-12-3, 10-10-2 Hockey East) return to league play this weekend. They will visit Boston College (14-11-3, 13-8-2) Friday at 2 p.m. and Merrimack College (4-20-4, 1-16-4) Saturday at 2 p.m.
UNH is sixth in the 10-team league standings. The Eagles and Warriors own the third and last-place spots, respectively. The top eight teams at the end of the regular season will qualify for the Hockey East playoffs.
After this weekend, UNH has three games remaining: a home-and-home series with second-place Boston University (19-6-3, 13-6-3) next Friday and Saturday and a home bout with the Eagles Feb. 22.
“I’m trying to look at the end of the season just saying this is the last couple months I have of playing college hockey so I just need to keep pushing through and grinding through,” Wenczkowski said.
UNH freshman goaltender Ava Thewes was named this week’s Hockey East defensive player of the week and St. Michael’s College junior forward Niall Foster was selected to this week’s Northeast-10 Conference weekly honor roll.
Thewes made a combined 26 saves over two relief appearances for the Wildcats in their two games at archrival Maine last weekend. She made seven saves in the third period of UNH’s 5-1 loss to Maine last Friday and 19 over the final two periods of the Wildcats’ 2-2 draw with the Black Bears last Saturday.
Foster, a Newmarket resident, logged three assists, blocked three shots and went 35-for-48 one faceoffs over the Purple Knights’ two 5-4 NE-10 home wins over Saint Anselm last weekend.
The NH College Hockey column runs Thursdays during the season. Alex Hall can be reached at email@example.com.