by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
ALBANY, N.Y. All season, New Hampshire battled scoring woes. Sure, its top three of Daniel Winnik, Brett Hemingway and Jacob Micflikier put up great numbers, but few other forwards stepped up.
That started to change late in the season, as players like Trevor Smith, Josh Ciocco and Mike Radja began to contribute to the offense. And it was especially true when coach Dick Umile broke up his top line, putting Micflikier with Ciocco and Thomas Fortney.
But for New Hampshire, which plays on the large ice sheet at home and is known for its ability to score goals, this season was never the type offensive that it was accustomed to.
The Wildcats did not have a 20-goal scorer this year, with Hemingway topping out at 19. That's rare for a team that always has had two or three — Colin Hemingway, Lanny Gare, Steve Saviano, Preston Callander, the list goes on.
And when the chips were down Saturday, the Wildcats could not get one past 5-foot-6 freshman Michigan State goalie Jeff Lerg.
"He's one of the best around, that's for sure," Yandle said. "He's going to be tough to beat."
New Hampshire had its shots, putting up 36 overall, and at least 10 in each period. But the pressure was rarely sustained.
"They play 1-4, with four across the blue line," Umile said of Michigan State. "It's difficult to carry it in. You have to chip it by and got after it. We practiced it during the week. We generated enough scoring chances. I wish we had a little more 'Grade As.'"
Said defenseman Brian Yandle, "We knew the type of style they played, we expected it. It wasn't like they were protecting the lead, they just try to bottle you up in the neutral zone."
On the other end, junior Jeff Pietrasiak was putting in a strong game himself in net for New Hampshire. His freshman year, he was behind All-American Mike Ayers, and last year, Pietrasiak took a back seat to then-freshman Kevin Regan in the NCAAs after rotating throughout the regular season.
This year, Umile mostly rotated, but each goaltender struggled at times. Down the stretch, Pietrasiak played better, and after Regan lost 9-2 to BU in the Hockey East semifinal, Pietrasiak got the nod.
Still, it was that offense.
"If we lose, it's not because of our goaltenders, it's been our offense," said Umile on Friday.
And that was true again. The best chance to tie the game came on a power play early in the third, when Micflikier threaded a back door pass out of the reach of MSU defenseman Corey Potter, right to Hemingway. But Lerg stretched his pad across and made the stop.
"The bench was real upbeat. We knew we had a chance," Yandle said. "I didn't think anyone was getting frustrated. We battled to the end."
As he's had a tendency to do ever since splitting up the big three of Micflikier-Winnik-Hemingway, Umile again reunited that line in the third period, starting with the power play that came 45 seconds into the period.
"It depends on how the game is going," Umile said. "Jacob had chances with Fortney and Ciocco. But we had a power play and we kept it that way the rest of the game."
To no avail. It was another season of falling short for a program that has been here many times, but never won an NCAA title.
"You work all year to get into a groove and we did that at the end, regardless of that Hockey East semifinal (a 9-2 loss to BU)" Umile said. "People worried how we'd bounce back from that, but you see we did. The seniors put this whole team chemistry together."
Before departing, Umile gave praise to his opponent, and sent the rest of the NCAA a warning.
"They're big, strong, they have skill, goaltending," Umile said. "This is the kind of team that can win the whole thing. Rick deserves a lot of credit. He's a great ambassador of the game. I'm happy for him."