Two Returning Players Keep Confidence Alive For UNH
Vela, Eiserman Both Score In Returns After Injury For UNH In Game 1
LOWELL, Mass. As New Hampshire battled back from a one-game deficit to beat Merrimack, 2-1, in a best-of-three series last weekend in the opening round of the Hockey East playoffs, UNH forwards Marcus Vela and Shane Eiserman were forced to look on from the stands.
Both Eiserman and Vela had been out for several weeks with separate injuries. Eiserman, a junior, has been out of the lineup since tearing the MCL in his knee on Jan. 21. Vela, a sophomore, suffered an ankle injury against Boston University on Feb. 17.
Friday night in Game 1 of the Hockey East quarterfinals against Mass.-Lowell here at the Tsongas Center, both players returned, and both players scored, as the Wildcats took Game 1 from the top-seeded River Hawks, 3-1.
“We had a tough second half (to the regular season), said UNH head coach Dick Umile. “We lost Eiserman and then we lost Marcus, and that was a big part (of UNH’s struggles). Last week against Merrimack, we didn’t want our season to end and then all of a sudden, bang, you get some confidence. Now we got these guys back.”
Eiserman opened the scoring for UNH at the 7:38 mark of the first period. After an errant Lowell pass in the offensive zone found its way onto Patrick Grasso’s stick near the blue line, the freshman winger took off down the other end and Eiserman wasn’t far behind. One quick pass and Eiserman had given the Wildcats a 1-0 lead.
Later in the period, Grasso would double that lead to 2-0 on a rush of his own, scoring on a wrist shot from the right side.
But Lowell would get back in the game with a Nick Master goal midway through the second, after UNH failed to clear the puck past defenseman Dylan Zink. However, just over one minute later, Vela converted on an unassisted goal to again put the River Hawks out of reach.
Two players. Two returns. Two goals. Pretty simple formula for the Wildcats.
“We knew we had to respond after their goal,” said Vela, speaking about his goal. “We were lucky enough that we were able to response through a goal, but we knew we needed to respond. We had good pressure, turned the puck over, and I just took it to the net.”
The last several weeks have undoubtedly been torture for Eiserman and Vela, watching as their teammates limped through the end of the regular season. But Vela said that last weekend’s series win over the Warriors gave the group a jolt of confidence that it simply didn’t have down the stretch run.
“We’re hitting our stride,” he said. “We’re solid in our d-zone and that makes it easier. We’re playing composed and those are the two biggest things helping us right now.”
After the Wildcats came back last weekend, Vela and Eiserman both knew that it not only extended their season, but would give them a chance to get back into the lineup.
“Shane was out a little longer than I was, but we were watching those games at Merrimack and how the guys were fighting for their lives, that really got us going,” Vela said. “They extended our season, and they gave us a chance to get back on the ice. We watched how hard they were fighting, blocking shots, and we both wanted to do the same for them when we got back out there.”
Added Umile: “I think their impact speaks for itself. Shane with the first goal. Marcus was out there blocking shots and gets a goal. They’re two big, strong players that bring a lot to our team.”
UNH blocked 23 UMass Lowell shot attempts in Game 1, and has now blocked 20 shots or more in their last three games, all of which have been wins.
Umile said after the game that he knew UNH’s goals would have to come on transition.
“We knew we’d have to score on the rush,” he said. “They play so well in their own end. But it’s all about confidence. We scored three goals on the rush and we were playing and moving the puck with confidence.”
Even Lowell head coach Norm Bazin spoke about the number of shot attempts that UNH blocked in Game 1.
“We’ll need to review the tape and find a way to change our angles,” he said.
Game 2 is Saturday night, back here at the Tsongas Center.