If you get dizzy easily, you may want to prepare yourself before reading this article because the UNH Wildcats hockey team has had quite the roller coaster ride this season.
After being picked for fifth place in the Hockey East Coaches’ Preseason Poll and eighth in the media poll, the Wildcats currently sit in a four-way tie for sixth place in Hockey East (4-8-4 Hockey East, 10-14-4 overall) with Vermont, Connecticut, and Northeastern.
From the start of the season, UNH set out to prove their critics wrong, however, a lack of consistency has made it difficult. Recent wins over defending NCAA champion Providence College and Hockey East power UMass Lowell, UNH is beginning to think they have found the formula that will see them become a team to be reckoned with for the remainder of the season and into the playoffs.
Recent wins over defending NCAA champion Providence College and Hockey East power UMass Lowell has UNH thinking that it has found the formula that will see them become a team to be reckoned with for the remainder of the season and into the playoffs.
After the Wildcats victory at UMass Lowell, head coach Dick Umile said there were a variety of reasons for his club’s slow start to the season.
“Earlier in the year, whether it was the goaltending, (Danny) Tirone was playing by himself, and we were leaving people uncovered in front (of Tirone), turning the puck over, so we’ve cut down on turnovers,” said Umile.
UNH is also showing improvement in its defensive zone, which is allowing Tirone to showcase his talent for stopping pucks.
On the season, Tirone, named the Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week for the week of February 1, is fourth in saves in Hockey East with 417 in 14 games, which is an average of 29.8 per game. He is 14th in the league with a 3.30 goals against average and 10th with a .903 save percentage.
“He’s very athletic,” Umile said in his assessment of his goaltender. “He’s very quick and he competes real hard. He does everything well. He trains well. He eats well. He’s a great student. Everything about him. He’s a terrific young man.”
Up front, one constant on the team throughout the season has been the scoring exploits of sophomore forward Andrew Poturalski.
Poturalski leads Hockey East in overall scoring and is tied for first in the nation with Michigan’s Kyle Connor with 44 points. In 28 games, Poturalski has scored 21 goals and 23 assists.
UNH has a record of 9-9-4 when Poturalski, a native of Williamsville, New York, records a point and is 1-5-0 when he does not score a point.
Umile has been impressed with Poturalski’s progress.
“He’s a talented player,” the coach said. “The step that he’s made (in improvement) is a great step up. Offensively, he’s absolutely terrific. He’s getting better, defensively, and that’s what he’s going to need to do but with the puck on his stick, he has good vision, he can make plays, and he’s a goal scorer.”
Of course, Poturalski has not been the only player to contribute offensively. Linemates Tyler Kelleher and Dan Correale have complimented Poturalski. Kelleher is second in Hockey East overall scoring with 40 points while Correale is third in UNH scoring with 23 points.
From the blueline, junior defenseman Matias Cleland has chipped in 20 points in 26 games and is fourth in Wildcats scoring.
New Hampshire has six games remaining on the schedule against Vermont, Boston University, and Connecticut. All two-game series meaning the Wildcats can control their own destiny in the standings, heading into the postseason.
In order for UNH to climb in the Hockey East standings and make a deep run in the conference playoffs, they will need to continue paying strict attention to the defensive zone, score timely goals, and put together consistent efforts every night.
Umile is seeing the signs that his players are believing in his systems and team culture, and because of that, he is confident they will continue to improve on a nightly basis and achieve those goals.
“Everybody’s buying in,” Umile explained. “We block a lot of shots. I think we blocked 30 (shots) in our game in Providence and that’s an awful lot of blocked shots. Guys are buying in and those are the little things that if you want to win, that’s what you gotta do.”
“I think we’re playing sixty-minute games. I don’t think we’re having lapses and beating ourselves. That’s what we’ve focused on, if we’re going to lose and goals are going to be scored (against UNH), let’s not let them be because we’re standing around not covering somebody. Let it be a great play by the opposition, not a mental mistake by ourselves.”
With the efforts Tirone, Poturalski, and their UNH teammates have put forth recently, fans can expect the Wildcats to make great plays of their own which will lead to more scoring, more wins, and ultimately, may just lead to proving the preseason pundits wrong.
Follow ESPN New Hampshire’s NHL/NCAA Hockey Writer, Shawn Hutcheon, on Twitter at @ShawnHutcheon.
(Andrew Poturalski photo: tnhdigital.com)