DURHAM — Kohei Sato began his junior campaign with the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team by scoring more goals in the season’s first two games than he did over his previous two years.
Sato matched his career goal total by scoring twice in UNH’s 6-2 season-opening victory at Miami of Ohio last Friday and recorded another goal when the teams skated to a 4-4 tie the next night.
The forward from Nishitokyo, Japan, logged a goal and an assist in both his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Sato and the Wildcats (1-0-1) will play at Bentley (0-2) of the Atlantic Hockey Association Friday at 7:05 p.m.
UNH coach Mike Souza said each of Sato’s goals against Miami of Ohio came as a result of his speed and elite skating ability. While speed has always been Sato’s biggest asset since arriving on campus, he has recently learned how and when slowing his game down can lead to results.
“When you skate that way, you’re always in a rush to go a million miles an hour,” Souza said of Sato. “For someone like him, he’s starting to really understand, hey, the less I move sometimes, the more I end up with the puck. Hopefully he continues that trend.”
Sato said he and Souza talked at the end of last season about the forward slowing his game down — not necessarily with his skates but in his head.
“Coach talked about doing less is more — especially when things are going your way doing less is more,” Sato said. “I tried to focus on that in the offseason to try to slow my game down and learn (the) defensive side of the game and create momentum from that and bring more in the offense.”
Sato also spent his offseason working on getting stronger, the mental side of hockey, bringing a lot of energy during his shifts and being consistent.
Sato, who became the first Japanese player to participate in an NCAA Division I hockey game when he made his UNH debut, built his confidence this past summer when he represented Japan in the 2019 Ice Hockey World Championship in Estonia. Over five games in the tournament, Sato notched two goals and two assists.
“There’s nothing like it,” said Sato, who also represented Japan with the men’s under-20 national team in the International Ice Hockey Federation Challenge Cup of Asia in 2015. “It’s an honor and privilege to represent your country and anytime you can do that you just try to make the most of it.”
Sato said he learned from Team Japan’s experienced professionals and enjoyed playing alongside his friend Yuki Miura, who is a junior forward for Lake Superior State of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. Miura, who is from Tokyo, and Sato live 20 minutes from each other and played on rival teams growing up, Sato said.
“You get a chance to play with some pros in a pro tournament and you realize, wow, I’m just as good or better than most if not all these guys, and I think it did a lot for his confidence,” Souza said of Sato’s experience in the tournament. “We’ve noticed it right from the start of our practices that he looks like a junior. He looks like a guy who’s been around and is ready to take that next step.”
Sato will try to build on what Souza called a great start to his season against Bentley on Friday.
The Wildcats’ five goals-per-game average is tied for sixth in the country and ranks second in Hockey East. UNH also boasts the No. 4 power-play unit in the nation after going 5-for-11 on the man advantage last weekend. Junior Max Gildon is the reigning Hockey East co-defensive player of the week after registering a goal and three assists against Miami of Ohio.
Bentley is coming off an opening weekend in which the Falcons were outscored 7-1 at AHA foe Robert Morris despite outshooting the Colonials, 81-38, over two games.
Souza said he knows 18th-year Falcons coach Ryan Soderquist well as they grew up not far from each other in Massachusetts. Souza is from Wakefield, Mass., while Soderquist is from Stoneham, Mass. Souza also was an assistant coach at Connecticut during the Huskies’ final season in the AHA (2013-14).
“I coached in the Atlantic league and it’s a huge opportunity anytime you get to play a Hockey East team,” Souza said. “No matter what conference you’re playing against, you can win and you can lose and it’s going to require our best.”