DURHAM — The power play has been crucial for the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team early in the 2019-2020 season.
Case in point, last Saturday’s cross-state matchup against Dartmouth College at the Whittemore Center. The Wildcats scored three power-play goals — in seven chances — on the way to a 5-4 overtime win over the Big Green.
The extra-man goals upped UNH’s season total to 10 goals in 31 chances, for a Hockey East-best success rate of 32.3 percent.
The Wildcats, 4-2-1 overall and 2-1-0 in Hockey East, will look to continue their prowess on the power play when they square off against Massachusetts, ranked No. 2 in the nation, on Sunday (1 p.m.) at the Whittemore Center.
The power play hinges on a combination of factors, said head coach Mike Souza.
“I think we have the right guys and the right chemistry right now,” he said. “It’s always an evolving situation. It’s something that I think you need to work on a lot. You need guys who are willing to stay on the script and you need guys who are willing to go off script and make plays when they need to and be interchangeable. It’s the ability to know where the other four guys are supposed to be and that if you find yourself not where you were drawn up on the board necessarily, you can improvise and play the spot of one of your teammates. I think that’s one of the reasons the group has been successful.”
Having talented players helps, too. Defenseman Max Gildon and forward Patrick Grasso have three power-play goals each.
Against Dartmouth, Gildon had assists on all three power-play goals and Grasso scored the first two.
They and forwards Angus Crookshank and Jackson Pierson, both sophomores, and forward Charlie Kelleher, a junior, most often make up the first power-play unit.
“We’ve moved some things around this year,” Souza said. “We’ve moved Max to the elbow. We’ve moved Jackson up top. It’s less about where they are. It’s the ability to be interchangeable. . . . I think the guys all complement each other well. Having a good power play is not about one guy. I think it’s about a collection of five guys working together. That’s what we’ve seen so far early on. Hopefully they can sustain it.”
The final two power-play goals against Dartmouth were timely.
UNH trailed 4-3 when a Dartmouth player took a boarding penalty with 1:09 left in regulation.
Fifteen seconds later, Grasso scored on the power play to tie the game.
In overtime, Dartmouth nearly killed off one penalty and then took another. The Big Green killed off the first, but Kelleher scored the game-winner with UNH still on the power play and nine seconds left in the overtime.
The power play will have its work cut out for it against Massachusetts.
The Minutemen lead Hockey East in penalty kill. They have killed off 30 of their opponents 32 power plays.
UMass was the surprise team in the country last year.
The Minutemen were the Hockey East regular season champions. They finished with a 31-10-0 overall record and advanced to the NCAA title game.
Sophomore defenseman Cale Makar graduated straight into the NHL playoffs with the Colorado Avalanche and freshman defenseman Marc Del Gazio also left for the pros and the Minutemen lost other players as well.
They’re 6-1-0 overall and 2-1-1 in Hockey East, ranked No. 2 and coming off a sweep of Northeastern.
“I think they’ve got a nice mix of speed, skill, goaltending and all of the above,” Souza said “They’re riding the wave of momentum that you can create off of getting to a national final. Rightfully so, they’ve picked up where they left off last year and I’m excited to have a chance to go out and compete against them.”
It’s the first of three games against UMass this season. The Wildcats and Minutemen play a home-and-home set Friday, Jan. 24 in Amherst and Saturday, Jan. 25 in Durham.
“We talk about you want to measure yourself against the best,” Souza said. “They’re the No. 2 team in the country right now. You want to see where you’re at. Let’s see where you’re at against the best in the league. They’ve got it going pretty good right now and they deserve all the accolades that go along with it.”