Three-point weekend: UNH’s effort against UMass Lowell bolsters hopes for Hockey East tournament.
DURHAM — The University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team responded quite nicely.
A couple of the goals for UNH’s home-and-home series against UMass Lowell, the No. 14 ranked team in the country, were to bounce back from a rough weekend and get back to playing better hockey with the Hockey East tournament on the horizon.
The Wildcats got back on track with a 1-0 win over UMass Lowell in their final game of the season at the Whittemore Center on Friday night and then followed up with a 2-2 tie at the Tsongas Center on Saturday night.
UNH has one more tournament tuneup — and a shot at a little more redemption — before starting the playoffs with a quarterfinal series on the road March 15-17.
The Wildcats play at Northeastern on Friday night at 7 to close out the regular season. The Huskies swept UNH, 6-3 and 6-0, a little over a week ago.
It’s another chance to prepare for postseason play.
“I’m just excited that we have an opportunity to play well going into the playoffs,” said first-year coach Mike Souza said. “Anything can happen once you get into the playoff setting. I just want our guys going in there playing well. I think that’s the mindset of our players and it should be.”
Against UMass Lowell, the Wildcats made the most of their three goals from a shuffled forward lineup, the goaltending of sophomore Mike Robinson and a defensive corps that was missing one of its leaders in junior Anthony Wyse.
A steal and breakaway goal from freshman forward Jackson Pierson late in the second period and 29 saves by Robinson in his fifth shutout of the season delivered the Friday night win.
On Saturday night, a pair of defensemen scored in a span of a minute and 48 seconds midway through the second period to provide all the UNH offense. Freshman Will MacKinnon scored the first of his career to tie the game at 1-1 and sophomore Max Gildon got one on the power play shortly after.
Robinson had 19 saves on Saturday.
When the ice shavings from the weekend cleared, the Wildcats were sitting still in eighth place in the standings. Boston College is a point ahead in seventh place and finishes the regular the season at Providence on Thursday night. UNH can conceivably catch the Eagles for seventh.
If the Wildcats remain in eighth place, they will draw No. 1 seed Massachusetts in the quarterfinals and play their best-of-three series in Amherst, Mass.
UMass has been the surprise team of Hockey East and the country, clinched its first Hockey East regular season championship and was ranked No. 2 in the land last week. The Minutemen are 26-7-0 overall and 18-5-0 heading into their finale at UConn on Friday.
The Wildcats played well at times in the two games against Northeastern just over a week ago. They owned a 3-1 lead early in the second period on Friday and were down 1-0 early in the third period on Saturday, but both games got away from them.
Northeastern is locked in a battle for the second seed in the Hockey East tournament with Providence and UMass Lowell. Northeastern and Providence are tied in second, UMass Lowell is a point back in the standings and even Boston University is in the running, a point further behind.
One of the pieces of good news for the Wildcats is that they are locked into the tournament in at least the No. 8 spot. This is the first year that only the top eight teams qualify for the tournament and three teams will be left out. UNH would not have made the tournament the last three years if the same format had been used.
The Wildcats were picked ninth in the league’s preseason poll, so they have outdone that prediction.
In addition, they put up a 9-6-2 record at home, which is their first time over .500 and best mark at the Whittemore Center since the 2014-15 edition went 11-6-2.