The Boston College men's hockey team returns to action tomorrow night when they take on the UNH Wildcats at the Whittemore Center. UNH has had mixed results this season, with a high-performing offense but with serious deficiencies on defense and between the pipes. To help us preview the game, we asked some questions of Mike Lowry of the UNH Men's Hockey Blog. To the Q&A!
1. What stands out the most to me statistically when looking at UNH is that they have one of the lowest team save percentages in the country (.884). Has the goaltending itself really struggled, or have they been put in a too-difficult situation due to poor defending? Do you expect this to improve over the course of the year?
ML: Danny Tirone, who has played in 7 of the 9 games this season, enrolled midway through last season and played very well (GAA 2.14, SV% .924).. He has been struggling to regain that form (GAA 4.19, SV% .872). Tirone is a quick, mobile goalie who occasionally goes too far outside the crease to challenge the opponent. In fairness to Tirone, UNH's team defense has not been as effective as last season. Many of the goals against have come with the goal-scorer uncovered near the crease. The loss of defenseman Brett Pesce, who left after his junior season to join the Carolina Hurricanes, has been a factor. He excelled at breaking up plays in the defense zone.
In the 3-3 tie with Merrimack College last Saturday, UNH's team defense was more effective. UNH's defensemen are relatively young - Harry Quast is the only senior. In addition, two of the centers are sophomores and one is a freshman. They have the potential to improve their defensive play as the season progresses. The backup goalie Adam Clark, also a sophomore, won two big games against ranked opponents (i.e., Union and Merrimack) and only surrendered 2 goals in each game. He is recovering from a shoulder injury and may be ready to play this weekend. Clark is a 6'5" goalie who is not as quick as Tirone but plays a sound, positional style.
2. On the flip side, UNH is one of the top teams in the league offensively, scoring 3.77 goals per game. This is in spite of being pretty low nationally in terms of possession. Do you expect UNH's offense to level off, or will they remain one of the best in Hockey East?
ML: The bulk of UNH's scoring has come from the Tyler Kelleher-Andrew Poturalski-Dan Correale line. The have combined for 53% of UNH's goals (18 out of 34) and 70% of the points (42 out of 60). Kelleher, a junior, is the leading scorer in the nation (5g, 13 a). Sophomore Andrew Poturalski is tied for third in scoring in Division I (7g, 9a) and is tied for second in power play goals (4). Of the four lines, they are by far the most effective at maintaining puck possession in the offensive zone. Both Kelleher (US NTDP) and Poturalski (Cedar Rapids) played center during their junior hockey careers so the Kelleher-Poturalski-Correale line has two play makers who can also score goals. Correale is probably the fastest player on the team. They're a fun line to watch.
The UNH coaches usually try to match up the all-senior line of Collin MacDonald-Kyle Smith-Maxim Gaudreault against the opponent's top-scoring line. They are veteran, solid two-way forwards. That leaves the Kelleher-Poturalski-Correale line to match up against the opponent's second line. In two games against Merrimack, the third best defensive team in Hockey East, UNH scored a total of 7 goals. The game against Boston College on Saturday will be a stern test against the stingiest defense in the league. The results will be an indicator of just how good the UNH offense is.
3. As UNH gets set to face a very good BC team, what kind of game gives them the best chance to win - a tight, low-scoring defensive battle, or a wide open affair? Do you expect UNH to try to open up the game on the big sheet?
ML: Having watched many BC-UNH games at the Whittemore Center over the years, I think the chances of a tight, defensive battle are low. This matchup is usually one of the most exciting games to watch on the olympic-sized rink at the Whitt. Lots of speed, quick transitions, and play-making. Given how well Thatcher Demko (GAA 1.00, SV% .962) has been tending the BC net, I don't expect UNH to score more than a couple goals. The outcome is likely to depend on how effective UNH can be at defending against the Eagles - that is, back-checking against quick transitions and in-zone, defensive coverage.
4. Who needs to perform better in order for UNH to get to where they need to be defensively to give their good offense a chance to win them more games?
ML: If Danny Tirone gets the start in goal, he will need to accomplish something he hasn't done in 7 games this season - surrender no more than 2 goals. In my weekly interviews with UNH captain Collin MacDonald, he has stressed that defense is a six-man effort. That means everyone blocking shots, pursuing loose pucks, and lifting sticks in the prime scoring zone.
5. What's the general consensus on Dick Umile's recent contract extension? Was it a good move? Do you expect UNH to tick back up toward the top of Hockey East, or is that not really in the cards right now?
ML: I don't know about the general consensus, but I think the extension of Coach Umile's contract makes sense in the context of the plan to have Associate Coach Mike Souza take his place when he retires. Coach Umile has held Souza in high regard going back to his playing days in the late 1990's. Apparently, it was Coach Umile's hope to be succeeded by a former UNH player. Umile and Souza now have the opportunity to work closely with each other, along with Coach Glenn Stewart, until Umile retires. I've talked to a number of hockey people both inside and outside the UNH hockey community and they all believe Mike Souza will be a very good head coach.
I also think UNH has a good chance of returning to the top 4 in Hockey East before Coach Umile retires. Beginning with Tyler Kelleher, UNH has been on a recent run of recruiting some very talented players. The sophomore class is one of the more talented groups to come to UNH since the Frozen Four appearances in 1999 and 2003. Also, four freshmen - Marcus Vela, Ara Nazarian, Chris Miller and Matt Dawson - are getting plenty of playing time and they have contributed a total of 6 goals and 8 assists. I think UNH has a good chance of returning to the NCAA Tournament by the 2016-17 season.
6. What are your expectations for the rest of the season for the Wildcats? And any predictions for Saturday?
ML: I expect the Kelleher-Poturalski-Correale line to be a scoring threat whenever they are on the ice. As the freshmen gain more experience, I think one or more will emerge as a double-digit goal scorer. I honestly don't know if either Danny Tirone or Adam Clark will emerge as a top 3 or 4 goalie in Hockey East by the end of the season. I think the best case scenario is UNH finishes 4th in Hockey East and the worse case scenario would be a 9th place finish.
For more coverage of UNH men's hockey, visit Mike's blog, one of the most comprehensive blogs in Hockey East.