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UNH hockey looks to get back to basics as Maine comes to town

Feb. 14—When Mike Souza talked to his University of New Hampshire men's hockey players after the team attended a Boston Bruins game recently, a handful made the same comment.

Souza said many of them could not believe how simple the game looked — the puck got in, the puck got out and players managed the puck through the neutral zone.

"I said, 'Oh, sounds familiar, right fellas?'" Souza said.

The No. 19 Wildcats (14-11-1, 7-8-1 Hockey East), Souza said, have struggled at times to execute those basics.

His emphasis entering UNH's sold-out, two-game home series with rival Maine this weekend has been on handling the puck well in the neutral zone and not trying to do too much with it.

Less can lead to more, Souza said.

"I want to get back to being a team that plays with a lot of pace and speed," Souza said. "I don't think you can play as fast if you mismanage the puck through the middle of the rink ... When there's a play to be made, make it. If there's an odd-man rush, make it. But, if not, the puck's gotta get in behind the opposing team's defense."

UNH, coming off consecutive Hockey East losses to No. 1 Boston College and Merrimack College, will host No. 7 Maine (18-6-2, 10-5-1) on Friday and Saturday at the Whittemore Center. Both games are at 7 p.m. Friday's game will be aired on NESN.

The Wildcats are seventh in the Hockey East standings with 22 points — four spots and 10 points behind their rival. Maine ranks sixth in the PairWise while UNH ranks 16th.

The top five teams in Hockey East will receive a bye to the quarterfinals while those seeded sixth through eighth will host opening-round games in the league tournament.

"We always bring it back to, sometimes, we like to overcomplicate the game," UNH junior captain and defenseman Alex Gagne said. "Our message and our goal this week is to just play simple. I think when we play simple, we're one of the best teams in the country, we're one of the fastest teams in the country."

Souza said UNH changed its usual practice schedule this week, holding a film session on the Merrimack and BC games on Monday and taking Tuesday off. He also met individually with the team's top scorers, freshman Ryan Conmy (team-high 12 goals and 13 assists) and sophomore Cy LeClerc (nine goals, 11 assists).

Souza said he told both LeClerc, a sophomore from Brentwood, and Conmy not to feel like they have to score in order for UNH to win, don't try to do too much and make the most of opportunities when they come.

UNH, which is 6-7-0 since the holiday break, scored one goal in both losses last weekend (6-1 to BC, 3-1 to Merrimack) and in four of its past five losses.

Conmy, a Los Angeles Kings prospect, and fellow top-line wing Liam Devlin have one goal and one assist over the Wildcats' past five games. LeClerc, their center on the top line, has one goal and two assists over that span.

Sophomore second-line wing Morgan Winters (eight goals, 10 assists) has three assists over the past five games but they all came in UNH's 6-3 win at Vermont on Jan. 27.

Souza said he has discussed possibly "moving some things around" with his coaching staff going into this weekend.

"If anything, I try to take some pressure off of them," Souza said. "Certainly, we'd love to get Ryan and Cy going even more than they are — Morgan — all guys that have had productive years but the productivity has left them longing for some more productivity."

The changes to the start of the practice week, Gagne said, gave the team a chance to reset mentally and recover physically.

After last weekend, the Bedford resident said he and his teammates have worked on cleaning up their defensive-zone play along with their neutral-zone decision-making.

Gagne and the Wildcats will also try to limit Maine's top two scorers in freshman brothers Bradly and Josh Nadeau.

Josh Nadeau leads the Black Bears in goals (15) and points (37) and is tied with his younger brother for the team lead in assists. Bradly Nadeau, a Carolina Hurricanes prospect, is one point behind Josh.

Josh notched a hat trick and Bradly had three assists when Maine defeated UNH, 5-2, at Alfond Arena on Dec. 1.

"We want to be a national contending team — that's something that we're not afraid to talk about," Gagne said, "but also league-wise ... we still have a chance to be in that top-four conversation.

"The importance (of this weekend) is huge. It's obviously going to be hectic but if we control our emotions I think we'll be having a good fight."

ahall@unionleader.com