As another Friday night of hockey on CSTV approaches, New Hampshire fans are breaking out their whites, as it’s time for the “Whiteout at the Whittemore Center.” Personally, with the wild weather we’ve had lately, I’m glad it’s going to be a whiteout inside and not outside. Of course, with Maine coming to Durham to take on the Wildcats, things could get pretty stormy on the ice for this “border war” (Durham is only a few miles from the Maine/New Hampshire border).
As if the Maine-New Hampshire rivalry wasn’t enough, have I mentioned that this is a huge game with serious implications? We’re getting down to conference tournament time, not to mention NCAA tournament selection, and these teams are tied for third in Hockey East. A sweep for Maine would go a long way toward catapulting them into the running for an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament. If Maine loses two, though, it’s “Hockey East or Bust.” Who’s going to go “bust” on Friday? Three factors will tell the tale.
ALL SYSTEMS GO
This is a classic matchup of a team with a high-powered offense (the Wildcats) vs. one that relies on a strict team defense (Maine). Whichever team can establish its system more effectively is likely to be the team that comes away with the ‘W’ at the Whitt.
The Wildcats are fast and creative on offense. Dick Umile is one of only two head coaches in the country with three 30-point scorers at his disposal (along with Don Lucia at Minnesota), and they form a line: Sean Collins (12-23-35), Preston Callander (16-18-34), and Brett Hemingway (15-16-31). Of course, you can’t just key in on that line on defense, because the Wildcats have more where that came from. Jacob Micflikier has 25 points (11g, 14a) on the year – including five points in last Saturday’s win over a hot UMass-Lowell team – and Daniel Winnik has 23 (10g, 13a). The last time we saw UNH on CSTV, Winnik stepped up big and delivered a hat trick.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats are playing against a team that will sink or swim by how well it plays team defense. Maine plays a lot of tight games, and according to head coach Tim Whitehead, the Black Bears’ success is going to depend on how hard their forwards come back and play defense. The Maine defensive system is anchored around goaltender Jimmy Howard, who has battled through injury, illness, and has finally started training at full speed. It’s showing too, as Howard was named the Hockey East Goaltender of Month for January, after going 4-0-3. A full-strength, Howard should be a big plus, but the team in front of him cannot get drawn outside the dots defensively, especially on the large ice surface at the Whittemore Center
DOWN ON THE UPSIDE
If UNH’s offense against Maine’s defense is the featured attraction on Friday night, the undercard is Maine’s ability to generate offense vs. UNH’s ability to play team defense. Neither the Black Bears’ offense nor the Wildcats’ defense is a great strength, but the team that can surprise on Friday should be able to make things happen.
Maine is not a high-scoring team. The Black Bears have to work hard for every goal they score, driving to the front of the net and generating second and third chances. That’s something Maine hadn’t been doing regularly until January, but it’s happening more now. Maine has players that can benefit from the Whittemore Center’s big ice: Mike Hamilton, Keith Johnson, and leading scorer Derek Damon. Unfortunately, the Bear who is most creative with the puck, Michel Léveillé will be out of the lineup, thanks to a game disqualification against Northeastern. Maine might not have flashy offensive players, but it needs to find a way to be creative, move the puck off the wall and get it towards the front of net. It’s hard to play dump-chase on a large ice surface, because the corners are further from the net, so Maine will need to be creative in order to score.
UNH has been finding ways to win, going 3-1-1 over its last five, but it hasn’t usually involved great defense. Umile knew coming into the season that his D-men could struggle, and they certainly have done so on several occasions. The Wildcat blueliners have their good nights — a 2-2 tie against No. 1 BC, for example – and their bad nights — a 9-8 loss to Dartmouth and a 7-0 loss to Lowell in particular. The Wildcats’ offensive attitude may hurt them at the other end, as they don’t always get the back-pressure they need from their forwards. There’s not much size or physicality on New Hampshire’s blue line, but it’s not just about the defensemen; it’s about UNH’s team D. To win, the Wildcats need to recognize that they can be an “offense first” team, but they can’t be an “offense first, second, and third” team. Even though Maine isn’t a high-powered offensive force, New Hampshire needs to shut them down, and that means executing on defense.
The special teams battle in this game is going to be huge. It’s hard to find a team that moves the puck better than UNH on the power play, and it shows — the Wildcats own the nation’s best power-play, with as 25.5% conversion rate. The `Cats involve their defensemen a lot (especially Brian Yandle, who has five extra-man tallies this year), and they have a lot of options. The team’s ability to find an open seam is fantastic.
On the other side, Maine’s penalty kill has been excellent as of late, ranking seventh in the country this season, at 87.2 percent. Whitehead is very happy with his team’s willingness to block shots and work in front of the net to clear the puck. Those aspects of Maine’s penalty kill were suspect early in the season, but now, they’ve become a strength. If Maine can let the now-healthy Howard see the puck, he will make the save. This is similar to the battle between UNH’s offense and Maine’s defense, but this is as big a special teams matchup as you’ll find: the nation’s top power play against one of the best penalty kills. Here’s an X-factor: Maine can’t be drawn outside too much on the kill, because with the Whittemore Center’s big ice, Hemingway can get in middle for UNH and cause big problems. To keep that from happening, Maine needs to stay disciplined.
The last three meetings between these teams have all gone to Maine, including a pair of shutout wins. The Black Bears proved in November that they can beat UNH, but that was at Maine’s Alfond Arena, not the Whitt, with its big ice and intense crowd. Also, as Umile said earlier this week, both teams are different now than they were in November; so don’t be too surprised if you see different results this time around.
Billy Jaffe serves as a hockey analyst for CSTV. He is a former college player at Michigan and has served as a broadcaster and an on-ice official for CCHA games.