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Friday, October 12, 2012

UNH hockey team: Good times will return

DURHAM -- For a program accustomed to winning, last season was a major disappointment for the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team.

The Wildcats struggled defensively out of the gate, the goaltending was erratic and the offense spotty. The Wildcats didn’t score their first goal until the third game as part of an 0-4 start. ...

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DURHAM -- For a program accustomed to winning, last season was a major disappointment for the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team.

The Wildcats struggled defensively out of the gate, the goaltending was erratic and the offense spotty. The Wildcats didn’t score their first goal until the third game as part of an 0-4 start.

Although there were signs of improvement along the way, that seemed to set the tone for the season. It was a struggle just to make the Hockey East playoffs where they were eliminated in the quarterfinals for the third time in four years.

They failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than a decade.

“There was a little bit more working out for us,” said senior forward John Henrion. “It ended a little bit sooner than we wanted. I think it will benefit us in the long run. We have a lot of expectations on our shoulders.”

“We’re an anxious group and a little bit angry as to what went on last season,” said coach Dick Umile. “We’re looking forward to changing that. Getting off to good start will be very, very important.”

Unlike last season when the Wildcats played four of their first five games on the road, they open the 2012-13 with a four-game homestand beginning Friday night against St. Cloud State.

Many of the players who endured the program’s worst season in 17 years return. Seven of the top eight scorers are back as are five of the top six defensemen and the No. 1 goalie.

“We started to play well at the end of the season,” said alternate captain Greg Burke. “To make it where we wanted to make it and to lose the way we did left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth. It’s been a long summer. Everyone’s excited and motivated.”

The Wildcats, who host the NCAA Northeast Regional this season, believe the way they played in the playoffs last year at Boston University will have a carry-over effect.

They fell in three games after squandering a 4-1 lead in the decisive third game and losing 5-4 in double overtime.

“As long as I’ve played hockey it’s hard to lose in overtime, especially when you’re up big and knowing that we had them,” said sophomore forward Grayson Downing. “We’ve had a lot of time to reflect and it sort of eats at you a bit.”

UNH finished with a 15-19-3
record, its worst mark since the 1995-96 season. The Wildcats finished sixth in Hockey East.

“We understand we let ourselves down, we let the coaches down and we let the fans down,” said sophomore goalie Casey DeSmith. “We’re definitely looking to get UNH hockey back on track.”

“It’s hard to put into words the drive we have, especially with the tradition we’ve got here,” Downing said. “Last year was a disappointment as a team. We’re looking to turn things around this year and get back to where we were before.”

Downing is a candidate for one of the top two lines along with juniors Nick Sorkin and Dalton Speelman, who returns after missing all but 11 games last season with a broken wrist.

Downing is the team’s leading returning goal scorer. Burke, seniors Austin Block and Henrion, and junior Kevin Goumas are also in the top-six mix.

The Wildcats, however, did lose leading scorer Stevie Moses.

“We’ve always had somebody step up,” Umile said. “Our goal scoring wasn’t as strong as it’s been. That’s an area we need to improve in.”

Seniors Connor Hardowa and Brett Kostolansky anchor the defense along with sophomore Trevor van Riemsdyk, who made the Hockey East all-rookie team last season.

Juniors Justin Agosta and Eric Knodel will benefit from a year’s experience.

Freshmen Harry Quast and Brett Pesce and sophomore Ryan Randall of Durham will likely compete for the one opening on the blue line.

“It’s always about the returning guys,” Umile said. “The freshman class looks good.

“They’ll have to battle to get into the lineup. There’s a good group coming back so there will be good competition.”

After starting the final 19 games last season, DeSmith returns as the incumbent in goal. He also made the Hockey East all-rookie team.

Junior goalie Jeff Wyer is back after recovering from knee surgery that cost him half of last season.

“On paper the sky’s the limit,” DeSmith said.

UNH was picked to finish fourth in Hockey East in the preseason coaches’ poll.

“I think the expectations are truly high,” Burke said. “If we play to our potential it could be a special season.’’

I think everyone in the locker room knows that.”