Another Lament for UNH
by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter
BOSTON Merrimack freshman Mike Collins’ goal at 14 minutes, 11 seconds of the third period clinched the Warriors’ first ever berth in the Hockey East Championship Game. For the New Hampshire fans and players on the bench, Collins’ bank shot likely drew a shout or two, aimed specifically at Wildcat goaltender Matt DiGirolamo.
The junior, who made 31 saves in UNH’s latest early exit from a major tournament, a 4-1 loss to Merrimack, hung his head after the play, before looking up, toward the scoreboard hanging over the TD Garden ice. He didn’t see himself skate out of position or an easy save slide through his pads. All his focus remained on was the score, which said his team was losing, 3-1.
UNH coach Dick Umile lamented the loss following the game. He pointed to missed chances by his vaunted top line, led by Hockey East Player of the Year Paul Thompson, and gave Merrimack credit for its turnaround.
However, the one player he mentioned by name was DiGirolamo. Not to criticize the goaltender and say he needed to be better. Umile’s comments were pretty simple. UNH lost on Friday because, once again, its strongest weapon misfired at the worst possible moment.
“The disappointing part was I thought [DiGirolamo] played pretty well,” Umile said. “The second and third goals were no fault of his. The second was a deflection, and the third was off his back after we’d just missed a scoring opportunity to tie it up, [Merrimack] came down and caught us in an odd-man rush.”
Entering the season, DiGirolamo’s ability to lead the Wildcats through a tough Hockey East schedule and deep into the postseason was a concern. His first two seasons at the Whittemore Center proved to be almost entirely unremarkable, sitting for the most part while Brian Foster became a steady goaltender in Hockey East.
Umile, though, has coached a few successful goaltenders in his time. Trusting instincts, he rode DiGirolamo throughout the season to great results. However, for a program that has struggled so desperately to win anything other than regular season games of late, the true test of DiGirolamo was whether or not he could help UNH end its drought, which is going on eight years.
Blaming the goaltender is the easy way out for most. Odd-man rushes, missed nets and lost puck battles, though, are not the fault of a goaltender off his game. Those issues lie with a club getting outplayed by their opponent, outworked by Merrimack. Long have the questions regarding UNH’s mindset and mental toughness been thrown at Umile. And answers never seem to come. Of course, the Wildcats are talented, maybe as gifted as any club in the league, still, no banners or trophies since 2003.
That’s not entirely true, Thompson’s player of the year honor meant a lot to some. So did Bobby Butler’s last year and Kevin Regan’s two years before, but in neither season did UNH manage to bring any hardware back to Durham.
DiGirolamo is capable of winning games for his club. Throughout the season, he demonstrated that when the Wildcats need him, he can make the play they need.
The issue, as it’s been in the past, is whether or not the five players in front of him share that ability. Moving forward, UNH will earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament. As the host school of the Northeast Regional in Manchester, N.H., the Wildcats will likely be the three or four seed in what will essentially be a home game.
UNH’s struggles in the conference tournament have carried over to the national field as well. Should UNH fall in the opening round of the tournament, the eyes will turn DiGirolamo if one goal swings the decision. Like Friday night, though, the five players in front of the goaltender must take a portion of the blame as well. Getting outworked, outplayed and outchanced isn’t the goaltender’s fault.
And if anyone forgets that, Umile will be sure to remind them.