Not This Year for New Hampshire
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
ALBANY, N.Y. Turnabout is fair play.
Friday, New Hampshire busted open a close game by taking advantage of a series of Cornell turnovers, going from down 1-0 to up 4-1 in the blink of an eye. The final was 6-2.
Saturday, it was a 1-1 game when RIT took advantage of New Hampshire's mistakes, and it was 4-1 Tigers in the blink of an eye. The final was 6-2.
"It was kind of the same, they were coming at us and we just weren't getting bounces today," UNH senior Bobby Butler said. "They did a good job burying mistakes."
New Hampshire tread a thin line this year, coming back from big deficits a few times before. That ability for quick bursts in their own right helped the Wildcats come in first place in Hockey East. But they had no more such runs in them, thanks in large part to RIT's steady play.
"It's tough to come back from that," UNH junior Peter LeBlanc said. "We hit the crossbar, we had our chances. ... The bounces didn't really go our way tonight, and it's tough to come back from down 4-1 in the third period.
"We did it to Cornell yesterday, and I don't want to say it was similar because we were on the other side, but we came back twice this season in the third period. We had good offensive outbursts. We were trying to get to some of the things we did in those games, but it just didn't happen."
In the end, New Hampshire fell victim to a hungry RIT team, playing with nothing to lose and with no fear, combined with the poise of a veteran group that came together at the right time. It all resulted in one of those great kinds of Cinderella success stories that makes sports great. New Hampshire was the collateral damage.
"They were aggressive. They stayed after it and transitioned back on us," UNH coach Dick Umile said. "We had a couple times there where we had good opportunity, a bad pass, hit the pipe, and they transitioned back. They were quick and they made the best of it. ... It happens fast. We'd done it several times this season, it was unfortunate it happened to us."
This team got as far as last year's Wildcats did, losing a regional final. For a fan base frustrated by the inability to return to the Frozen Four since 2003, that will be small consolation. But really, equaling last year's run was an accomplishment for this team, not to mention scrapping its way to first place in Hockey East despite a rough start in non-league play.
"We played some non-league games early in the year against Miami and Wisconsin, we probably weren't ready to play them to be quite honest with you. We got better as the season went on. Some of the younger guys filled in some important roles for us."
Umile figured the team was not quite ready for a major run, though certainly just by getting to the NCAAs, it put the team in position to do so.
The defense had lost three key seniors. The offense lost James van Riemsdyk and Danny Dries, and other role-playing seniors.
"It was a team that we needed a lot of things to happen in pieces, and we got a lot of those things. So I give a lot of credit to the leadership of this team. They really kept this team together. It was a team we probably didn't think we'd go this for, but Bobby having the year he had, and (goalie Brian) Foster was great all year."
Next year could be one to look at for a big run.
"We've got a good group coming back. Defensively I think we're going to be real strong with some young defensemen," Umile said. "We like our goaltending with Matt DiGirolamo, we think he's going to be a real good one. If everybody comes back, we think we're going to have a real good team. We're going to miss Bobby Butler, he put up a lot of minutes."
The key to that will be a returning trio of juniors — Phil DeSimone, LeBlanc and Mike Sislo — who had 38 goals between them. Remember, Butler had never scored more than 14 goals in a season, and had nine last year. This year, he put up 29. Any or all of those juniors can break out in the same way.
If Blake Kessel, a First Team All-Hockey East pick, sticks around, he will anchor what should be a strong defense. Nick Krates is the only senior defenseman who dressed Saturday. He had three points this season and was a minus-6.
DiGirolamo only had one decision this season, but was a top goaltending recruit out of the USHL when he came. As a junior, it will be his time. If he fulfills his potential, the Wildcats will be fine there.
"We're a program that's had a lot of success and tradition. Getting to the Frozen Four is a hard thing as we all know," Umile said.
Butler, of course, won't get that chance. His nation's best 29 goals was a small consolation.
"This was one of the best teams I've been a part of, to come so close and that turning point really hurts," Butler said. "It was a great year, I just wish it ended a little different."