DURHAM — Way back in October, Mike Souza picked up his first win as a head coach when defenseman Benton Maass fired a shot past goalie Stefanos Lekkas in overtime to give the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team a 3-2 win over Vermont at the Whittemore Center.
This weekend, the Wildcats, coming off an entertaining split against Maine in Durham, will look to the north and west to battle on another border when they face Vermont in a rematch at the Gutterson Fieldhouse in Burlington.
The teams will meet tonight and Saturday nights at 7 p.m.
The race for position in the Hockey East standings continues.
“Each and every one of our games is so, so important,” Souza said. “There are four huge points on the line this weekend. It’s what makes college hockey exciting. Each and every game matters. I know our guys are excited to play.”
The Wildcats have seven games remaining in the regular season.
After the series at Vermont, they have a weekend off and return to action with a pair of home games against Northeastern on Friday, Feb. 22 and Saturday, Feb. 23.
In the last five regular-season games, UNH plays Northeastern three times and UMass Lowell twice.
Going into this weekend, the Wildcats are 10-9-8 overall and at 6-6-5 in Hockey East hold down the seventh spot in the league standings. They are two points out of fourth place, three out of third place and four out of second.
On the flip side, the Wildcats are only a point ahead of eighth-place Maine.
The tournament setup has changed for this year and only the top eight teams make the league playoffs and three teams will be left out.
Vermont is 11-13-2 overall and 4-10-2 in the league and comes into the weekend in ninth place, five points behind Maine.
Vermont has come on strong the last couple of weeks.
The Catamounts swept Merrimack in a pair of games at home two weekends ago, 5-1 and 4-3 in overtime.
Last weekend, Vermont went to Providence College and beat the No. 9 Friars, 3-1, on Friday night and earned a 1-1 tie on Saturday night.
The Catamounts have worked to dig themselves out of a hole.
“They’re desperate,” Souza said. “We need to play desperate as well. They’re going to be prepared to play us. They’re feeling good about themselves, as they should. It’s a nice weekend when you go down to Providence and take three of four points from Providence. That’s a really good hockey team.”
Lekkas, a junior, had 33 saves in the win and 46 in the tie. He has a 2.36 goals-against average and leads Hockey East in save percentage at .929.
Sophomore Mike Robinson, of Bedford, counters in net for the Wildcats. He has a 2.27 gaa and .921 save percentage.
Robinson said he and his teammates follow the Hockey East standings, but not too closely.
“We’ve talked about it all year,” he said. “Every team is in the playoff race. We try not to look at it too much, but it’s definitely there in the back of your head. As we come down to this final stretch, we’re definitely keeping an eye on the standings, but we’ve just got to take every game one game at a time and look for two points every night.”
The Wildcats are 8-2-3 in their last 13 games.
Senior forward Ara Nazarian has scored at least a point in each of the last five games with three goals and five assists for eight points in that stretch.
He figured in all three goals against Maine in Friday night’s 3-2 overtime win last weekend to match his career high in points for a game. He had two goals, including the game-winner, and an assist.
His previous best was also two goals and an assist, at Vermont on Oct. 28, 2017.
“Ara’s game seems to rise in Hockey East play,” Souza said. “He was a top kid growing up in the area and he’s not intimidated by the moment. He’s not intimidated in terms of who he plays. We’re lucky to have him. He’s talented. He’s competitive. He wins puck battles. He’s a tough kid. He’s been a great member of our program now for almost four years. He’s got seven games left in the league coming up and I know he’s excited. . . . . I’m sure Ara has some good hockey left in him the rest of the way here.”