UNH ready to begin NCAA run in regionals
DURHAM – It’s been a tale of two seasons for the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team. After sprinting out of the gate winning 12 of their first 17 games, the Wildcats faltered in 2013, playing below .500 down the stretch and failing to advance past the Hockey East tournament quarterfinals for the third time in four years.
The ’Cats are hoping to recapture some of their early season magic with a start fresh start Friday when they face the University of Denver in the opening round of the NCAA Division I championship tournament at 8 p.m. at the Verizon Wireless Center in Manchester.
“We want to make a statement like we did at the start of the year,” senior captain Connor Hardowa said. “We’ve been in that mentality ever since we lost to Providence (in the Hockey East tournament).”
“We’re in a new season now. We’re going try to put some consistency together and play well now. It’s all about now,” said UNH head coach Dick Umile. “The positive of it is that our team got a little bit of a rest. I think we’re anxious to get back playing, and playing at the Verizon.”
Still, Umile knows the Wildcats are playing with a slim margin for error.
“You can’t have lapses in the NCAA tournament because there is no tomorrow,” he said. “It’s one and done if you don’t play well. The focus will be to not beat ourselves.”
Keys to success, Umile said, will be strong puck management and not giving up odd-man rushes. To hone their game, the Wildcats will practice in Dover this week because the rink there is the same size as Verizon Center’s.
Scoring is one area where the Wildcats would like to improve their recent fortunes. Until January, the team averaged a solid 3.22 goals a game, but in its past seven contests, just 2.58 goals a game. UNH ranks 12th in the nation in scoring while Denver is ranked third.
This will be UNH’s fifth NCAA tournament game in Manchester, where they have a 2-2 record. The Wildcats will have to win two more games this weekend in order to advance to their first Frozen Four since 2003. This is the fifth time New Hampshire has hosted the regional quarterfinals.
Friday’s confrontation will be the second time the teams have faced off against each other this season. The Wildcats and Pioneers went at it in November in Denver with UNH bouncing back from a 3-0 first period deficit to score four goals in the final 20 minutes to snatch a 6-4 victory. Hat tricks by Kevin Goumas and Grayson Downing led the UNH attack.
“We know a little bit about Denver from playing out there on Thanksgiving. We were able to get a win after falling behind 3-0. That was probably a very important time for our team, playing Colorado College and Denver really brought the team together.”
Umile has full confidence in goalie Casey DeSmith of Rochester even though he pulled the sophomore netminder nine minutes into the initial confrontation with Denver after DeSmith surrendered three goals on five shots.
“The way he competes I think he’ll handle it (the rematch) fine,” Umile said. “The way he started his career was under a lot of pressure, and he handled that well. I think he’s anxious to prove he’s as good as any goalie in the tournament.”
In the other quarterfinal contest Friday, Hockey East tournament champion UMass Lowell takes on Wisconsin. The Eastern Regional final is Saturday with the winner advancing to the Frozen Four on April 5 in Pittsburgh.
The Pioneers come into the contest with an overall record of 20-13-5 compared to UNH’s overall record of 19-11-7. Denver has won seven NCAA Division I championships in its history and is making it sixth consecutive NCAA appearance. New Hampshire has never won a national championship.
“They’ve got it all. They’ve got balance throughout their team, experience, tradition, so it should be a heck of a game,” Umile said. “We need to make sure we can control odd-man rushes and face-off plays, areas where you can hurt yourself and beat yourself.”
“We can’t give them any chances in tight. They’ve got some guys that have a lot of skill up front,” Hardowa said, “They’re an all-around good team that can put pucks in the net and stop pucks from going in.”
It’s not lost on Umile the significance that UNH returns to NCAA tournament after missing out last season.
“Sometimes people who are there a lot take it for granted. Personally I don’t,” he said. “It’s a place you try to get to every year and it’s not an easy place to get to.”