Curing the Hiccups: UNH Gets First Inteconference Win
by Joseph Edwards/CHN Writer
There visible relief in the cold New Hampshire air, as UNH fans were able to breathe a sigh of relief; a collective exhale as the 16th-ranked Wildcats took their intrastate rival Dartmouth for a 5-2 win — their first non-conference victory in their last out-of-league game of the season.
While the game itself provides annual bragging rights to the winner for 50 years running now — nine for the Riverstone Cup — New Hampshire came into the weekend with some ground to make up. Early season match-ups with Wisconsin, Miami, Renssaeler and Cornell left the 'Cats at 0-5-1 outside of Hockey East, where they'd gone 9-2-3. A win against the Big Green would lend credibility to their season, opening all-important extra doors for NCAA postseason play.
"It was important that we won the game," UNH Head Coach Dick Umile said. "We played a solid 60 minutes. It was an important game, playing against out arch-rivals, it was important to the team, and important for us to win a non-conference game. At this point, it's all about momentum."
Momentum was hard to come by early in the season, when the Wildcats opened with a loss to RPI, followed by another loss and tie on home ice to Miami. Intraleague wins over Northeastern and Maine brought some respite, but the following weekend a trip to Wisconsin ended in back-to-back drubbings at the hands of the Badgers.
"We have some missed opportunities, but playing against those teams makes you a better program," Umile said. "We want to play against some of the best teams."
Dartmouth, who some had pegged as high as fourth in the tightly packed ECAC, has struggled some this season as well, but still presented a challenege to UNH. So how badly were the Wildcats hurting for a win over the Big Green?
"It was really important for us," said sophomore defenseman Blake Kessel. "We've struggled out of conference, so it felt good. [The team's out-of-conference results] could hurt us a little bit."
Unfortunately, there's no time machine or second chances in college hockey. With the results already recorded, the 'Cats must look forward to the remainder of the schedule, which is all Hockey East the rest of the way.
"If we win our games, we'll qualify, and we can get an automatic bid if we get to Boston [and win the HE Championship]," Umile said. "We've already finished with UMass, Lowell, we have some key games with Maine and Vermont; we finish up against Boston College, who's having a great season. All the games are important."
At his disposal for those heavyweight matches is the strong play of UNH's upperclassmen, who have revived an offense that scored just 13 goals in their non-conference games, and five of those came in a tie with Miami. Leading the resurgence are seniors Bobby Butler and Peter Leblanc, along with juniors Paul Thompson and Phil DeSimone — four of the team's five top scorers — who have combined for 32 points (15-17) since December 4th, including all five goals and seven total points against Dartmouth. Junior goalie Brian Foster — whom Umile refers to as "the backbone of the team" — has amped up his play in that time span as well, going 4-1-1 with a 2.16 GAA and .929 save percentage.
"We have confidence in Foster — right now, it feels like you can't get anything past him," said Kessel, who ranks first among Hockey East defensemen with 26 points (fifth overall, behind Butler, whose 30 points place him third), including 20 assists, second in the league. "We really have to take it on ourselves. I knew it was going to be a different year, I had to step it up. I had to be ready, and I need to keep improving. Keep it simple. Right now, the focus is on Hockey East. We expect the usual battle. This weekend, we're playing Providence, and they had a great weekend against BC last week."
UNH must stick to their one-game-at-a-time mantra to continue their momentum, as Hockey East's automatic bid may be their only shot at getting into the NCAAs. Taking down Dartmouth was a key first step in getting rid of the non-conference hiccups, and making the the postseason could just be the cure-all they need.