DURHAM — Patrick Grasso scored the first University of New Hampshire goals in men’s hockey games last Friday and Saturday against the University of Connecticut.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, those early goals by the junior forward were among a limited number of highlights in the series versus the Huskies. UNH dropped both games by identical 7-4 scores and now looks to regroup and reset in a weekend series against Vermont in the Whittemore Center.
The teams meet Friday and Saturday nights at 7.
Grasso had three goals last weekend, staking UNH to a 2-1 lead with a second first-period goal on Saturday. It was his third time this year with a pair of goals in a game and he’s second on the team with 11 goals to the 12 of sophomore forward Angus Crookshank.
“I can’t say enough good things about Patrick,” said UNH Coach Mike Souza. “He works at his game all the time. He takes care of his body away from the ice. He comes down here and he works on shooting the puck and watching video.”
Exhibit A: Grasso’s second goal Saturday.
“That was an incredibly-skilled play,” Souza said. “He knocks the puck out of the air. Settles it down. Shoots it in the net. Stuff he works on all the time.”
Wednesday was an off day for the Wildcats, but Grasso was out working with the team’s goalies, getting in extra practice time. “It’s no coincidence,” Souza said. “I told the whole team (about that goal). Guys, this is a skilled play that you can work on. He’s here all the time working on his game. He’s not the fastest guy, but he’s quick. His mind is fast. He’s got great hockey sense.”
Souza loves Grasso’s compete level, too.
“Sometimes the smaller guys don’t get enough credit for being competitive because they’re not going to knock a guy over with a body check or whatever,” Souza said. “But I love his compete at the puck. His compete at the puck’s been outstanding this year. Happy to see the puck’s starting to go in for him.”
At 5-foot-7, Grasso and senior forward Justin Fregona are the two shortest players on the team.
Grasso had three goals in the first 16 games of the season and has eight in the last 10. He had at least one goal in four straight games starting in late December.
Grasso burst onto the Hockey East scene with 20 goals and 13 assists as a freshman in the 2016-17 season. He dealt with injuries the next couple of seasons and was limited to 12 games — he still had two goals and eight assists for 10 points — his sophomore year.
He got that year of eligibility back and thus is only a junior eligibility-wise.
Grasso’s goal against Vermont is to help the Wildcats bounce back from a rough weekend. “The message in the room is kind of getting back to our game, trying to find that swagger again,” Grasso said. “Obviously it was a tough weekend last weekend, but good teams put it behind them and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The Wildcats have been a resilient group for the most part. This is the second time this season and first since November that they have lost consecutive games.
“I think it’s something coaches really try to ingrain in us, is to be able to hit that reset button whether it’s one shift or a period or a game,” Grasso said. “It’s something we’ve taken some pride in this year and hopefully something we can continue to do moving forward. ... It’s just a confidence thing. I don’t think it took too much of a hit. Obviously, it was an eye opener for us.”
The Wildcats, said Souza and Grasso, will have their eyes open for Vermont, a team that is last in the league standings, but has played a number of close games.
“Let’s be honest,” Souza said. “It’s not like we’re that far in front of them in terms of the standings. It’s not like we’re in first place. The irony of that is there’s five points separating ninth and first, which is a good thing. But we’ve got to take care of our own business this week. That’s been our message all week. There’s more focus on us playing to our identity, our standards, this week than there has been all year.”
The Wildcats have eight games remaining and go into the weekend in ninth place in the league standings. Only the top eight teams will make the Hockey East tournament.The good news is UNH is only two points behind seventh-place Northeastern. In addition, the Wildcats are three points behind UMass Lowell, Providence, Connecticut and Maine who are all tied for fourth place. Boston University is only a point ahead of that in third and Boston College and Massachusetts are tied for first, one more point away.
“We talk about mental toughness all the time,” Souza said. “If there was ever a test of mental toughness for all the teams in the league, it’s this year. I’m sure there are a lot of coaches feeling the same way. They’re feeling pretty good one night and not so good the next night.”