UNH lets opportunities slip away against UMass Lowell

Jan. 22—DURHAM — The University of New Hampshire men's hockey team entered the third period of both games over the weekend within grasp of three Hockey East points.

Instead, the Wildcats (7-18-1, 2-13-1 Hockey East) scraped away one point from their two conference losses to No. 19 UMass Lowell (14-9-1, 8-5-1).

UMass Lowell turned a 2-2 deadlock after two periods on Friday night at the Tsongas Center into a runaway 6-2 triumph. The River Hawks scored twice over the first 2:03 of the third period and put the game away with both an empty-netter and even-strength tally over the final 1:56.

UNH entered the third period of Saturday's 3-2 overtime loss to the River Hawks at the Whittemore Center with a 2-1 lead and all the momentum after scoring two power-play goals late in the second.

"Obviously, one out of six points is not going to get it done, especially in this league," Wildcats sophomore forward Liam Devlin said after Saturday's loss. "We had a lot of opportunity to climb out (of the bottom of the league standings) this weekend. Didn't really take advantage of it."

The River Hawks outshot UNH, 12-6, in the third frame Saturday and pulled even with 3:29 remaining in regulation on captain Jon McDonald's goal from the slot on a counter rush.

UMass Lowell senior center Jake Stella skated around the back of the Wildcats' net into the left circle before going top shelf on UNH senior goaltender David Fessenden to score the game-winning goal with 51.8 seconds left in the 3-on-3, five-minute overtime period.

Stella also assisted on McDonald's game-tying goal and Isac Jonsson's tally that opened the game's scoring 8:19 into the second period.

UNH coach Mike Souza said his team practiced situations similar to what led to McDonald's equalizer goal to the point of exhaustion during practice last week. McDonald came late into the UNH zone on the rush before receiving a timely feed from Stella that set up the goal through traffic in front of Fessenden (38 saves).

"We wanted to nullify their late speed and that's how they score the tying goal," Souza said. "That's the frustrating thing because, if I showed you the game, 85% of the time we did it well ... At this level, in this league, the margin of error is that small."

Devlin said the Wildcats practiced keeping their heads on a swivel, not over-back-checking and preached, with UMass Lowell, the danger is always behind you entering the series.

"I think we just got caught puck watching there and then their fourth guy beat our guy up the ice, which can't happen," Devlin said. "They just took advantage of that opportunity — the late guy."

Devlin and Cy LeClerc, a freshman center from Brentwood, scored both of UNH's goals Saturday on the power play over a 2-minute, 56-second span. River Hawks junior defenseman Ben Meehan received a five-minute major cross-checking penalty and game misconduct with 4:52 remaining in the second period.

A Robert Cronin holding penalty with 54.7 seconds left in the second period erased part of UNH's extended power play on the Meehan major penalty.

The Wildcats went 2-for-4 on the power play on Saturday after an 0-for-3 outing on the man advantage Friday night. UMass Lowell owned the third-best penalty-kill percentage in the nation (.877) after Saturday's win.

Devlin and LeClerc, who had a breakaway chance in overtime on Saturday, are tied for the team lead in power-play goals (five). UNH has scored 17 of its 53 goals this season on the power play.

"I thought our penalty kill (3-for-3) was good tonight, I thought our power play was good tonight," Souza said Saturday. "Just don't get it done five-on-five and we've struggled to score goals five-on-five all year. Comes back to get us tonight."

The Wildcats have nearly two weeks off until they next play — a home Hockey East bout with Merrimack College (15-9-1, 10-5-0) on Feb. 3 at 7 p.m. UNH will then visit UMass Lowell again the following night.

Devlin said the break will help players rest and heal but the Wildcats need to practice this week like they are preparing for a game this weekend.

Souza said he'd prefer to keep playing games but will try to keep practices both fun and competitive. The break also allows players to settle into the new academic semester and the coaching staff to go see recruits, he said.

"We'll make the most of our time," Souza said.

ahall@unionleader.com