Wildcats Find An Answer
by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer
How does a team cope with losing the center of one of the best lines in college hockey?
In August, it was a difficult question to answer for UNH coach Dick Umile and his staff. Once practice began however, things changed; junior Mike Radja and a pair of sophomores have emerged to give the Wildcats their answer.
To say that Daniel Winnik was vital to the Wildcats' success last season could be an understatement. His 41 points tied for second on the team, and his 11 power-play goals led his team. In all, three of his 15 goals were game winners.
At the conclusion of last season, Winnik opted to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes, the team that drafted him in the ninth round of 2004 NHL draft.
"Some guys expected it, but we weren't really 100 percent," said Radja. "I would say that some guys were surprised, but others weren't. Personally I sort of expected it to an extent."
Coach Dick Umile knew in the spring that there was a possibility Winnik had played his final season in Durham.
"We knew there was a chance that he would return for his senior year," Umile said. "Ultimately he along with his family made the decision to sign."
Radja has helped soften the blow of losing one of last year's leading scorers, filling Winnik's slot on the top line with Jacob Micflikier and Brett Hemingway in every game thus far for the Wildcats.
"It came as a surprise to me," said Radja. "During the captains' practices, Coach Umile came to me and asked me to play center.
"I am really happy that they decided to give me the opportunity to contribute."
Radja was primarily a winger for his first two seasons at UNH, but he had played center in junior hockey and other levels.
While Winnik and Radja differ in play style, Umile is happy with his choice in regards to who he plugged into Winnik's role.
"He has done a great job for us," Umile said. "We are pleased with the way he is playing. He brings another element to that line, he has speed, he can play physical, and he can score himself or set up a teammate."
Radja played with Hemingway at times at the end of last season, but this season was the first that he has played with both Hemingway and Micflikier.
"Sometimes last year, I would start the game with Brett," Radja said. "A lot of times I would start with Brett, and then he would move back with Jacob and Winnik later in the game to give opponents a different look."
Playing with both Hemingway and Micflikier is a different experience for Radja.
"They're different than playing with other guys in my career," Radja said. "I've played with Brett before, so I am sort of used to him, but Jacob is a fun player to play with. He can create a lot of space on the ice for us."
Trevor Smith and Jerry Pollastrone have also brought their play to another level, showing vast improvement in the offensive game.
"The entire sophomore class is an important class for us," said Umile. "Trevor and Jerry have played well together, but that whole class has had to step up and fill some holes on the team."
As good as the Wildcats' top line has been this season; it cannot handle the offensive workload alone. The players have been as impressed with Smith's and Pollastrone's play as the coaches have been.
"Trevor has been playing really well," Radja said. "He and Jerry Pollastrone have been great for us; they both seem to find the net when we need it."
Another large hole to fill for UNH comes on the blue line where the Wildcats graduated their top-scoring defenseman, Brian Yandle.
"Brian scored a lot of goals for us," said Umile. "He had a great shot and a good stick."
The Wildcats have had their struggles on defense early in the season, both offensively, and defensively.
"We have to wait for someone to emerge offensively on the blue line," said Umile, whose team has given up three goals per game.
"It could be a situation where we need a few guys to step up and contribute with some goals back there. Right now we need to do a better job defensively with our defense, and that will come as they get more experience."