Entering Saturday’s game with No. 3 Minnesota, New Hampshire is just 0-3-1 against top-six teams, 18-0-0 against everyone else. One thing has been in common with those four blemishes in UNH’s record — they’ve all come on the road. So while the presence of Minnesota at the Whittemore Center by no means guarantees victory, it’ll be of help.
This year New Hampshire plays just four regular-season home games against current top-ten teams, as compared to eight on the road. The Wildcats swept their only ranked opponent, Princeton, earlier this year. New Hampshire will be hard-pressed, though, to continue its winning ways at home against the Gophers.
“The way the schedule falls makes it a lot more challenging for us,” said Wildcat coach Brian McCloskey. “With Princeton, had we played them down there, we might not have swept them. But we had them at home and we took advantage. Obviously the top teams are able to do that.”
Now New Hampshire, ranked No. 5 in the USCHO.com poll and fourth in the PairWise Rankings, faces its best opportunity to legitimize its status as one of those top teams.
It won’t be easy. When the Wildcats played Harvard, they got blown away 7-1 and outshot 50-3. They failed to keep up with the Crimson’s speed. With crisp passing in the defensive zone and lightning quickness from the forwards, Harvard blew through the Wildcats’ forecheck and generated one odd-man rush after another. The likes of Krissy Wendell and Natalie Darwitz won’t be any easier to contain. Minnesota is, after all, the only team to beat Harvard this year.
McCloskey is choosing not to implement a system out of the ordinary to play the Gophers.
“These teams present unique problems,” he added. “You’re playing world-class players. It’s like taking Joe Sakic and dropping him into a men’s game. The issue coaches are confronted by is that you don’t want to totally rearrange your whole game scheme because truthfully you’d do more damage than solve issues by having to pay more attention to those people.”
New Hampshire does enter the Minnesota game on a hot streak. Since the break and the Harvard-Dartmouth defeats, New Hampshire has won four in a row and outscored its opponents by a combined 15-1 margin. McCloskey cited his excellent team defense and the consistent balance in scoring as the biggest keys to success this season.
Home-ice advantage might not be as strong as it usually is for the Wildcats. Though Minnesota no longer plays on the big sheet at Mariucci Arena, its upperclassmen all have that experience, and freshmen like Wendell and Darwitz are no strangers to the Olympic-sized ice of the Whittemore Center.
A clearer advantage for the Wildcats might lie in the timing of the game. While New Hampshire is idle, Minnesota must play a challenging game at No. 4 Dartmouth at 6 p.m. on Friday, then heal quickly for a 2 p.m. game at the Whitt.
The Golden Gophers have not struggled in second games this season — if anything, they’ve been better — yet they’ve never had to play a second game against a well-rested opponent.
McCloskey wasn’t too concerned about that factor.
“You’d like to think that presents an advantage, but when you’re talking players of that caliber, I’m not sure fatigue is going to be a major issue,” he said.
Minnesota-New Hampshire matches up the consistent biggest draw in the West against the biggest draw in the East. The Wildcats piled up their second-highest ever attendance figure last Sunday with 1,498 fans against Northeastern in celebration of the program’s 25th anniversary. Minnesota is the top-ranked program that’ll come to Whitt this year, and McCloskey hopes the fans will respond.
“My hope is [we'd benefit from] the combination of one of the top teams in the country coming to town and the word’s gotten out that we’re a fun team to watch,” McCloskey said. “I hope our attendance continues to pick up this last part of the season.”
New Hampshire has to play at Connecticut on Sunday. While the Wildcats handled the Huskies fairly easily the first time around, UConn has U.S. U-22 forward Kim Berry back in the lineup this January, so the Huskies will be that much closer.
The Huskies making bigger news this past week came from Northeastern, which brought fewer players when they took on the Wildcats last weekend. Two seniors — Michelle Lorion and captain Pam Pachal — were cut by coach Joy Woog last Thursday. Specifics on their dismissal have not been released. Pachal told the Boston Globe that she and Lorion have provided information to the athletic director about their concerns over the direction of the program, so this story might be far from over.