Team of the Week: New Hampshire
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
New Hampshire just wrapped up the first half of its season on an 12-game unbeaten streak. Pretty good for a team that a lot of people were unsure about coming into the season.
But the Wildcats have been down this road before, tantalizing their fans, only to come up short of the ultimate prize, the NCAA title.
But titles are won because of the little steps along the way. That might sound like coach-speak, but it's true, because you can't win national titles every year, and you certainly can't win them in December. But playing hot as a pistol right now will win you CHN's Team of the Week honors, and that's what UNH has done.
New Hampshire thought it could be pretty decent this year, but after Daniel Winnik left for the pros late in the summer, questions abounded. Mike Radja stepped into his spot, however, and has performed more than admirably. Interestingly, the other two members of that line — Brett Hemingway and Jacob Micflikier — you could say are underperforming this season. But that just tells you how well some other lines have improved.
In particular, sophomores Trevor Smith — who has already garnered plenty of press around here — and Jerry Pollastrone are providing a balance the Wildcats haven't had in a while.
"We've always been fortunate finding scorers," Umile said. "Last year we struggled with scoring, but we've got talented players. We don't have to rely on one line."
Of course, the goaltending has been a big factor in the surge. Junior Kevin Regan had a down year last season by the standards he set during his freshman campaign, but this year, he has bounced back tremendous while.
"You don't have first halves like we've had without real solid goaltending," Umile said. "Our goaltending can hide a lot of mistakes.
"He had such a good freshman year, expectations were so great. It wasn't all him. Pucks found the back of the net and we didn't play so well in front of him."
But it's not just Regan. Freshman Brian Foster was recruited as an insurance policy, and as the future. When Regan started playing well, Foster wasn't needed as much. But in essence, he did his job, by pushing Regan. And he's still doing so — in Foster's only two starts, he has shutouts.
"He's going to get some more starts," Umile said. "Kevin is so darn good, (Foster) might not get as many as he wants this year. But we're giving him a chance. ... It's always good if other goalies can compete. Healthy competition, there's no doubt it will keep (Regan) sharp."
It's hard not to be philosophical about New Hampshire's play so far. The team has been down this road, only to fall short of a national title. But, though some want to put a rap on Umile for that, it's not a fair one. Only one team can win every year, and saying you can't win the "big one" misses all the big ones that must be won along the way just to reach the "big one," and UNH has been to the finals twice, in 1999 and 2003.
So, yes, fans are jaded and want to see more than just great regular seasons ... but on the other hand, you have to latch onto the battles you win along the way because a) they should be appreciated for what they are, in and of themselves; and b) because it takes those little battles to win the big ones.
"You can't win the NCAAs unless you get there," Umile said. "Yeah, maybe the (knock) on me is I haven't won it yet. But we've had very good teams.
"You really do have to win the little battles. But there's no question we have the ultimate goal of winning championships. But it's about playing well at the end when going into the tournament. ... It's a lot better being on a roll now. We've struggled during first halves wondering if we could get on roll. We know we won't go undefeated in the second half. It's a tough schedule. But we have good leadership and good chemistry."
The schedule will indeed get tougher in the second half of the year. Just another reason to stay philosophical about the successes so far. But the ingredients are there, making a really special season at least possible.
"It's a little more balance than we've had," Umile said. "In 1999 it was similar with Ty Conklin in net and three balanced lines, and a solid defense. ... You only get those every so often. This is a group, when we were recruiting, it was built that way. With Winnik leaving we took a hit, but we have a good group still here."