Even as the losses mounted in the first half of the season, New Hampshire men’s hockey coach Mike Souza liked what he was seeing in his team. That positive outlook didn’t diminish when the Wildcats lost their first two games coming out of the holiday break, dropping a pair of one-goal games at Union to fall to 4-16-1.
Souza’s optimism is being rewarded, as UNH has responded with a three-game winning streak, including its first two Hockey East victories of the season at Providence and Massachusetts.
“I go back to those Union games, they might have been the two best games we played, and we lost,” said Souza. “You’re trying to constantly draw a silver lining and relay it to the kids.”
It’s a young squad. Aside from the line of seniors Ryan Black, Harrison Blaisdell, and Chase Stevenson, the rest of the forwards skating in Sunday’s 3-1 win at UMass were freshmen and sophomores. Freshman Cy LeClerc leads the team in scoring with 11 goals and 6 assists, followed by sophomore linemate Liam Devlin, with the Needham native and St. Sebastian’s product tallying 8 goals and 8 assists.
Souza is quick to credit the leadership of the senior line. Black is playing in his first season in Hockey East, the Pomfret, Conn., native arriving in Durham as a graduate transfer from Division 3 Babson, where he sparked the Beavers offense (18-20—38) as a senior in 2021-22. It’s been a learning curve, but five games into the second half of the season, he has made the adjustment.
“He’s a natural leader, so there’s an innate quality that he possesses that has earned him respect in the locker room right from the day he got here, in the way he conducts himself both on and off the ice,” said Souza.
Sophomores Alex Gagne and Colton Huard were listed as the top defensive pairing for Sunday’s game, but it’s the group as a whole that is making life a little easier for goalie David Fessenden, who was in net for each of the last three wins. The senior allowed just two goals in that span to improve his save percentage to .914 and drop his goals-against average to 2.53.
“Coming in from break, we took a step back and took a look at what we could do better in the D zone,” said Gagne, a Bedford, N.H., native who was selected by the Lightning in the sixth round of the 2021 NHL Draft. “I think that’s just refining the details, whether that’s stick position, getting in front of pucks.
“I think we really flipped the script the start of the second half, and just our willingness to play more team defense, and that if we do that, it will turn into more offense. I think that message has gone over well with our group so far.”
It’s a message the Wildcats hope to take into this weekend’s home-and-home series with UMass Lowell, beginning Friday at Tsongas Center.
One more coach
Last week, the NCAA voted to eliminate all volunteer coach positions in Division 1, and instead increased the limit on full-time coaches for baseball, softball, and hockey to four. The rule will take effect July 1.
Currently, there are three full-time positions allowed for hockey — one head coach and two assistants. Programs have augmented their staffs with volunteer coaches. The rule change allowing for a third assistant coach is certainly good news, but will all programs be able to take advantage? How will that affect the men’s hockey landscape?
“Every rule they make, the rich get richer,” said UMass coach Greg Carvel. “The programs with more resources, they’re going to have more advantage.
“The more coaches you can have, obviously, the better. But not everybody is going to be able to afford to pay four coaches. It’s a discussion I’ll have to have with my AD, but budgets are tight everywhere.”
While the financial concerns are real, the idea that this will open more doors for those looking to get into coaching appeals to Souza.
“It’s an opportunity for more people to get into the game,” said Souza. “That’s what I like about it. It’s a hard business for younger coaches to get into.”
There’s also the matter of how the additional coach will be deployed. Some teams do not have a full-time goalie coach. Would that be the direction they go in? Will the new staff member be available for practices and behind the bench for games? Or will it be someone solely on the recruiting trail?
“We have 29 guys on our roster, and three guys that can recruit currently,” said Souza. “There’s times when you’re on the ice by yourself, or it’s just you and your volunteer. I don’t know if we’re serving the student-athletes the right way with that being the case.
“So what I like about this is, that’s going to eliminate that from being the case. You’ll be able to make sure you’ve got staff coverage, and you’re going to have recruiting coverage. So it’s a good thing for college hockey certainly.”
Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney.