After Sweep of Maine, UNH Readies for Merrimack
by Joseph Edwards/CHN Writer
The natural rivalry between New Hampshire and Maine always puts pride on the line for both teams, but there was much more than that up for grabs with their two-game set over the weekend.
Both teams were jockeying for position in the Hockey East standings, and there were national implications as well. Add in some potential Hobey Baker candidates, and it was a perfect storm up in Durham, N.H.
And it certainly rained goals.
Friday showcased both teams’ ability to answer back-and-forth, as they traded goals at a consistent pace through the second period, with Maine’s big-name forward Gustav Nyquist willing the #18 Black Bears into a tie with three power-play goals, but it was his Wildcat equal, Paul Thompson that put #6 UNH ahead for good with his second of the night in an eventual 6-3 win.
The next night was no different, with a see-saw pace that once again saw Nyquist and Thompson trade goals. Things came down to the final minute, when, tied at 4-4, Nyquist danced around Wildcats’ goalie Matt DiGiralomo by the faceoff circle, but hit the post with the open net in front of him. The action raced down to the other end, where Thompson found a hole in Shawn Sirman’s coverage from along the goal line for the game-winner with just :16 left.
“Saturday was very back-and-forth, especially the last two minutes,” Thompson said. “It was probably one of the greatest sequences I’ve ever been a part of in hockey.”
“It was pretty exciting, the atmosphere was great,” UNH head coach Dick Umile said. “It was just great hockey. There were talented players on the ice. Friday, we were fortunate to get a couple goal lead, and Saturday was just unbelievable game of excitement with them hitting the post and us coming back and scoring.”
The season sweep of Maine - a very difficult happening according to Umile, and the Wildcats’ first against the Black Bears since 2007-08 - gave UNH a four-game winning streak in which they’ve scored at least five goals per game, and, more importantly, boosted the team into first in Hockey East with a game in hand over second-place Boston College.
“It’s going to go far for us,” said Thompson, who’s 23 goals are tops in the nation and go with his third-best 42 points. “One of the things we saw a lot was the depth of our team, they scored some big goals. Having four lines you can have confidence in offensively and defensively is great, and our depth came through.”
Thompson and linemates Mike Sislo and Phil DeSimone combined for 10 points on the weekend, but garnered help from Kevin Goumas’ first two collegiate goals, as well as tallies from Austin Block, John Henrion, Dalton Speelman, and Mike Beck.
“That was key, the ‘other’ players,” Umile said. “We got two from Henrion, one from Borisenok, Goumas got his first. Our younger guys are starting to score, and that's going to help us down the line.”
DiGiralomo, whom many tabbed as a potential weak point for the Wildcats early in the season, stopped 65 of 72 shots over both games, often quelling the Maine attack.
“He’s done it all season, he’s very consistent,” Umile said. “He makes the saves, and he’s proven to be a top goalie in our league. He’ll go down as one of best in our history.”
Both Umile and Thompson were also quick to cite the seventh man that got UNH through the weekend: the Whittemore Center crowd, which filled the arena at 6,501 both nights, all clad in white for the entire weekend.
“The students were insane this weekend,” Thompson said, noting that the excitement surrounding the game was apparent throughout the town. “It’s a different feel. The professors were excited. Mike [Sislo] and I were getting lunch at Subway, and the ladies there were talking about how they were going to watch the game on TV.”
While there was much to celebrate, there also isn’t much time for it. The ‘Cats host up-and-coming 11th-ranked Merrimack on Friday and then travel to North Andover for the back end of a home-and-home - and the series will be a far cry from what it used to be. The evidence is in a 4-3 overtime win over Northeastern, and then turned on the jets for in an 11-2 thrashing of UMass the following night.
“Immediately after Saturday, it was one of our first thoughts after someone said that they had beaten UMass, 11-2,” Thompson recalled. “We played them once before, and they played us really tight. We know we’ll have our hands full. We know.”
That they do. In their first tilt with Merrimack back in November, UNH erased a third-period deficit to escape with a 2-1 win. On the season, the Warriors sit at 17-5-4 (11-5-3 HE), and have climbed the national rankings with wins over Boston College, Maine, and Vermont. Since the calendar turned on 2011, they’ve gone 9-1-0.
“Because of what they’ve accomplished, this is not the Merrimack team of the past,” Umile said. “We’re going to have to compete.”
The Warriors boast plenty of depth of front, with Stephane Da Costa, Chris Barton, and Joe Cucci leading the way. Big Karl Stollery patrols the blue line, and Joe Cannata ranks among the Hockey East leaders with a 2.12 GAA and .921 save percentage.
Count Thomspon, a New Hampshire native, among those that have watched Merrimack’s transformation first-hand.
“It’s pretty cool. I grew up watching Hockey East and Merrimack was always towards the bottom. The skill level has risen a lot in my four years. They play a system and they buy into it. You just have to try not to get frustrated with their transition - they’re a very good transition team. In my four years here, we’ve played a lot of one-goal games against them.”
If it sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it is. A knock-down-drag-em-out fight between heavyweights, and what is sure to be another fast-paced, exciting weekend.