DURHAM — The University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team played in plenty of close games last campaign. This season, the Wildcats feel they have made strides to come out on the winning end of those tight contests.
UNH set a Hockey East record for most ties in a single season and played in a nation-leading and program-record 14 overtime games en route to a 12-15-9 overall record last season. The below-.500 mark marked the fourth straight for the Wildcats, who were swept by the University of Massachusetts in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs last year.
“What we took away from last year is we played a lot of overtime games,” Wildcats junior goaltender and Bedford resident Mike Robinson said. “Which means we know that we’re a top group. We’ve got to just get a little bit more just to get over that hump and win a one-goal game rather than just an overtime game.”
Coach Mike Souza said UNH boasts good team speed and a strong defensive core led by senior captain Anthony Wyse. UNH also returns Matt Dawson on the blue line for a redshirt senior season. Robinson called the Wildcats’ blue-line group one of the teams biggest strengths.
“We’re all pretty quick and can get up and down the ice and can play the kind of game we want to play,” Wyse said of the defensive group.
UNH added six freshmen in forwards Lucas Herrmann, Joe Hankinson, Robby Griffin and Chase Stevenson and defensemen Nolan McElhaney and Kalle Eriksson.
Hankinson, who was not announced as a member of UNH’s freshman class in June with his classmates, played in 46 USHL games with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders last year, recording five goals and five assists. Hankinson’s father, Ben, played in 43 NHL games over his time with the New Jersey Devils and Tampa Bay Lightning.
Souza said Griffin and Herrmann have both been skating at center.
“They’re all extremely smart hockey players,” UNH junior forward and assistant captain Patrick Grasso said of the freshmen. “They can all skate, good vision on the ice. They’re all going to help our roster, I think.”
Sophomore forward Filip Engaras will make his Wildcats debut after serving the final nine games of his NCAA suspension that kept him from playing all last season. Souza said in January that Engaras’ situation was regarding his amateur status and how the NCAA deemed some games he played in while in Sweden.
Engaras practiced with the team last year and can play in UNH’s home exhibition game against the University of Guelph, Ontario, on Oct. 6.
“He’s a two-way player,” Souza said of Engaras. “He’s a natural center. He gives us some size in the middle of the ice. He’s a cerebral player — smart. I don’t think he’s going to wow anyone but I think he’s a guy that if you come and you watch our team play, you’ll have a greater appreciation of each and every time you come to watch us play.”
UNH junior forward and assistant captain Charlie Kelleher said all of the forwards are skating with everyone in practice right now and the group has a lot of skill and speed. Grasso added the forward group has a good returning core to complement the newcomers up front.
“It’s going to be competitive for guys getting into the lineup and I think that just makes us better as a group,” Grasso said.
Grasso, Kelleher and their fellow forwards will try to improve on UNH’s 2.5 goals per game average last year, which was tied for sixth-best with rival Maine in Hockey East.
After the exhibition game, the Wildcats will open their season with a two-game road series at Miami of Ohio Oct. 11-12, which will mark the first two of five straight away games. UNH will host Boston College on Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. in its home-opener.
“Practice is good but we’re all here to play games and everyone’s really excited to get the season going,” Kelleher said. “We start up with our first scrimmage and we’re going to try to hit the ground running and try to have a good start.”