This Week in Hockey East: New Hampshire needs execution ‘where it needs to be’ if conference playoffs in the cards

LOWELL, MA - FEBRUARY 28: Benton Maass #28 of the New Hampshire Wildcats. The UMass Lowell River Hawks play host to the New Hampshire Wildcats during NCAA men's hockey at the Tsongas Center on February 28, 2020 in Lowell, Massachusetts. (Photo by Rich Gagnon/USCHO) (Rich Gagnon)
Playing in all 32 games this weekend heading into this weekend, Benton Maass has garnered three goals and 10 points for New Hampshire (photo: Rich Gagnon).

With one weekend left in the Hockey East regular season, one of the dark horses in the league is now down to its last breaths if it hopes to reach the postseason.

New Hampshire is not too far removed from a 7-3-1 stretch that took the Wildcats from a club with no postseason hopes up to a spot where earning home ice seemed realistic.

But back-to-back losses to Boston University followed by a series a week ago against UMass Lowell where the Wildcats probably played well enough to take more than the single point that they did, and suddenly, it is the midnight hour for this UNH team.

“The guys want to continue their season,” said New Hampshire coach Mike Souza. “The rah-rah stuff is out the window. The message is just to make sure your execution is where it needs to be. We bear down around the net. We don’t beat ourselves by taking penalties that we shouldn’t.”

The latter part of that message was an Achilles heel a week ago against UMass Lowell.

Friday, leading 2-1 late, the Wildcats were whistled for a hooking call late in regulation and the River Hawks capitalized on the power play. A night later, captain Anthony Wise was assessed a major penalty for elbowing after a video review and Lowell again scored. Later in the game, a UNH power play turned into a short-handed bid for Lowell where a penalty shot was awarded and the River Hawks scored.

Penalties have certainly been costly at the wrong time for UNH, a team that is in the middle of the pack in Hockey East in penalty minutes per game. That’s something Souza hopes can be fixed heading into a crucial two-game series against first-place Boston College.

“We’ve taken penalties at inopportune times,” Souza said. “When you take penalties like that, as a team, you have to pick your teammate up, get a penalty kill, do things to get through the situation. It’s cost us a couple of games.”

This weekend, UNH has the tall task of getting points against a Boston College team that went 6-1 in league play in February, winning the last six heading into the series. UNH is a point in back of Northeastern for the eighth and final playoff spot with the Huskies facing seventh-place Boston University.

If UNH comes away with two wins, it is likely that they’ll move ahead of either BU or Northeastern (or possibly even Providence) and grab the final playoff spot. That, though, is a big ‘if.’

“We know that playing a team like BC, they’re going to make plays,” Souza said. “They’re going to be good in transition, so puck management becomes important. I thought we managed the puck well against Lowell, especially on Saturday night.”

In terms of BC’s high-flying talent that already clinched the Eagles the regular-season title, that’s out of Souza’s control.

“We can’t worry about who Boston College has in their lineup,” Souza said. “We can only control about our mindset heading down to Chestnut Hill on Friday night.

“This has been a unique season [in Hockey East]. We talk about ‘if we had only done X, Y or Z this weekend,’ but I’m sure every team in our league has a series of games where they can say the same thing. ‘We’d have home ice’ or ‘we’d be in the playoffs if we had only done this.’ It’s our league though. It’s competitive players.”

Vermont Catamounts: the spoiler

Go ahead and raise your hand if you believed that Northeastern would go up to Burlington, Vt., last weekend and get swept.

Yeah, that’s what I guessed. I’ll pound my chest knowing that I predicted a series sweep despite the fact that UVM hadn’t won a single league game before last season.

My reason for that prediction is having known Kevin Sneddon for so long.

One thing I realize about “Sneddy” is that no matter the situation, he won’t let his team quit. If anything – and don’t let me make you think I know anything about the dynamic inside the Catamounts dressing room – but my guess is that the players were dying to win one not just for themselves, but for Sneddon as well.

Sneddon is leaving Vermont after this season and unfortunately will be remembered by many Catamount fans for not having success over his last couple of seasons. The reality, though, is that Sneddon had some incredible success for a coach who operated on one of the lower budgets in Hockey East.

Three NCAA tournament appearances, a Frozen Four, four 20-win seasons – that’s a decent resume even if the fan base won’t understand it and think that Gutterson Fieldhouse should draw recruits capable of winning 30 games and reaching the NCAA tournament at a minimum of every other year (yes, a UVM fan told me exactly that).

If you want to understand Kevin Sneddon better, whether a UVM fan or not, take this quote from his postgame interviews after last Friday’s win:

“I’m just really happy for our guys. They’ve played a lot of close games and played their hearts out and haven’t been rewarded. A lot of ties, a lot of one-goal losses.

“For me walking in that [dressing] room, obviously they tried to make it about the game puck, and all that kind of stuff. For me it was just awesome to see them smiling, singing and hooting and hollering. We haven’t had a lot of that this year. Those are the moments I’ll certainly miss and certainly cherish right now.”

One-goal games

In a year that has featured plenty of crazy stats, possibly none is more off the charts than this one from UMass Lowell.

UMass Lowell has played 33 games with 22 of the decided by a single goal or tied. Their record in those games is an impressive 10-6-6.

I’m not sure that there is anything that one can draw from this statistic, except that, without any doubt, the River Hawks are likely adding a few gray hairs to the heads of their collective coaching staff.

Starting to think about awards season

We’re one week off until coaches will vote on awards and still a full three weeks before they’ll be announced, but I can’t help but already think about two awards that are quickly becoming near locks.

Boston College’s Alex Newhook has gone from being a decent rookie to easily the best in the conference, and quite possible, the country. He scored 20 points in the month of February alone and earned both the Player and Rookie of the Month honors for Hockey East.

Not to be outdone, though, was the Player of the Month runner up, UMass forward John Leonard, who is having quite the finish to his junior campaign. Leonard scored 10 of his nation’s best 11 goals in February and enters this weekend’s regular-season finale against Vermont sporting a five-game goal scoring streak.

With only 10 assists, Leonard trails a number of other players in the league in scoring, so that might hurt his POY chances. But this finish to the season is one that is impressive and could, given the timing, vault him into Hobey Baker consideration.