DURHAM — Junior forward Liam Blackburn scored one goal through his first nine games this season. He had a pair of huge goals last weekend in the best series of the season thus far for the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team.
Blackburn scored a goal with 34 seconds left in Friday night’s game to lift the Wildcats to a 3-3 tie against the University of Miami.
He scored on the power play to even Saturday’s game at 1-1 in the first period and helped spur UNH to a 4-1 triumph over No. 19 Miami at the Whittemore Center.
“Liam’s an incredibly intuitive player, really good hockey sense,” said coach Mike Souza. “We’ve had him on left wing. We’ve had him at center. He can handle playing either position and he’s a great penalty killer.”
Blackburn and the Wildcats aim to ride momentum from the successful weekend into a major Hockey East series tonight and Saturday.
UNH plays at No. 10 Providence College tonight at 7 and the teams meet again on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Whittemore Center.
“We had a good weekend,” Blackburn said. “We scored some power-play goals and our penalty kill was good. That’s something we’ve focused on all year and are continuing to focus on this weekend against a good Providence team.”
Blackburn’s first goal last weekend was extremely timely.
The Wildcats trailed 3-2 and the clock showed 1:20 left to play in the game when the puck went into the Miami end of the ice and Souza called goaltender Ty Taylor to the bench for an extra attacker.
Blackburn jumped off the bench and over the boards towards the action.
“Usually when you’re the extra attacker you just want to be that extra force, on the wall or what not,” Blackburn said. “Any scrums you want to be that extra guy, getting that puck out of scrums. Just adding an extra layer out there. The puck was behind the net so I went right to the scrum. Kind of floated above the scrum hoping for a puck to bounce out.”
And with freshmen Eric Esposito and Angus Crookshank assisting, Blackburn knocked the puck into the net and UNH — after a scoreless overtime session — had a tie.
Blackburn scored his power play goal on Saturday night.
Later, it was 1-1 and approaching the halfway point of the third period and the Wildcats — led by Blackburn and junior Brendan van Riemsdyk — killed off a penalty that fired up the crowd.
Sophomore Patrick Grasso followed with his first goal of the season on the power play with 8:55 left. Senior Marcus Vela made it 3-1 and sophomore defenseman Max Gildon scored an empty net goal to close out the win.
For the night, UNH scored two goals in five chances on the power play. The Wildcats killed off the five penalties they faced.
Blackburn was a key to the penalty kill.
“I think with penalty killing, sometimes people get so caught up with little quick guys or guys being really fast,” Souza said. “For me, it’s the ability to have really good hockey sense. It’s about being in the lane, having a good stick, knowing where to be. He’s got good hockey sense.”
His stick helps, too.
“He uses a really long stick,” Souza said. “I think it allows him to disrupt plays up ice, but it also means you don’t have to recover quite as far with your feet when you’ve got a longer stick and you know where to go so you’re taking good lanes to the puck. He’s not afraid to block shots. He showed that last week, too. I think that’s what makes him a good penalty killer. It’s great to have guys you can count on to play in all situations. We have several. And he’s one of them.”
Van Riemsdyk is another prime penalty killer.
“Brendan’s excellent,” Souza said. “Very similar to Liam. Great hockey sense, long stick. Never really gets himself out of position. That’s so important. Does a good job on clearing the puck. Marcus Vela and Patrick Grasso have killed a lot of penalties for us, too.”
All the Wildcats will be put to the test against Providence. The Friars enter the series with a 7-4-2 overall mark and 4-2-0 record in Hockey East.
They had a 3-1 loss and 4-4 overtime tie at No. 7 Denver last weekend.
UNH will be without at least a couple of players. Defensemen Benton Maass, a sophomore, and Matt Dawson, a senior, will likely be out with injuries until Christmastime, Souza said.
Sophomore forward Charlie Kelleher and freshman forward Jackson Pierson are banged up as well and are more day-to-day.
The Wildcats will give it a go.
“I’m excited that we can build off last week and see where we’re at,” Souza said. “It’s a great challenge for us as a group. You have some success: Hopefully we have a mature enough group to build off it.”
The Wildcats play a home and home series against Dartmouth next weekend. This weekend is their last shot at Hockey East points until a Jan. 4 home game against Merrimack.
“The nonleague games are fun to have the opportunity to see some other teams,” Souza said. “The Hockey East games are that much more competitive. Every point matters. With only eight teams making the playoffs this year that really rings true. To measure yourself after a good win, against a good team. To come out and play arguably one of best teams in the country. It’s a great measuring stick for us as a program and it will be a great challenge for us with some guys out of the lineup.”