Di Girolamo Comes Into His Own for New Hampshire
by Michael King/CHN Reporter
MANCHESTER, N.H. He could have started as a freshman someplace else. He could have been a four-year starter for another successful college hockey program. But had he made a different decision, New Hampshire goalie Matt Di Girolamo might not be one win away from the Frozen Four.
The junior backstopped the Wildcats to a 3-1 victory against Miami in the NCAA Northeast Regional semifinal Saturday night. Di Girolamo made 21 saves behind a defense which prevented a prolific Miami team from creating sustained offensive pressure.
UNH coach Dick Umile gradually created the tradition of letting his goalies develop during their first two years, then relying on them heavily as upperclassmen. Judging by the success enjoyed by Kevin Regan (2006-08) and Brian Foster (2008-2010), as well as Ty Conklin and Mike Ayers earlier in the decade, there's little reason to doubt that model.
And that's precisely what attracted Di Girolamo to UNH.
"The goaltending history for sure," the goalie said after Saturday's win, describing why he committed to be a Wildcat. "With Conklin, Ayers, and all of them, [the program] does an unbelievable job preparing goalies."
However, Di Girolamo is now poised to lead the Wildcats someplace Regan and Foster could not: the Frozen Four. Under Di Girolamo's two predecessors, UNH enjoyed substantial regular-season success with mixed results in the Hockey East and NCAA tournaments.
Even with the mutual understanding of waiting your turn, he thought he might get more of a chance last year when the Wildcats struggled in the early part of the season. But coach Umile stayed loyal to Foster and kept faith in the process of giving his upperclassmen a full opportunity.
That message resonated with Di Girolamo.
"Knowing that I would get a chance, and running with that, really helped me last year," he said. "And now it's worked out really well."
After witnessing Di Girolamo's play this season, Umile acknowledges that the junior's chance to develop for two seasons served him well and is paying off for the team.
"He's a star for us — there's no doubt about that," Umile said. "He gives us an opportunity to win almost every night."
In fact, the coach believes that his goalie is now showing many of the qualities that his previous No. 1s constantly displayed.
"There’s a lot of confidence for our team with him back there," Umile said. "Not that we’re trying to make mistakes, but when we do make mistakes, he recovers it for us. He handles shots, and he doesn’t make it look too difficult."
Despite sitting behind Foster for his first two seasons, Di Girolamo is well prepared for this year's playoff run. He led the Waterloo Blackhawks of the USHL to a 25-12 record during the 2007-08 season and an appearance in the championship game. That playoff experience evidently served the junior well in Saturday's win.
"The USHL is a great league and it really prepares you for this experience," Di Girolamo said. "Especially considering most of the guys you compete against at this level played there."
Knowing that he had the ability to succeed at a high level, the biggest challenge for Di Girolamo this season was building the stamina required to be a team's No. 1 goalie.
"It's physically draining," he said. "It's also challenging being a student athlete and balancing things like classes and difficult practices."
Not only has Di Girolamo played nearly every minute for UNH this season, he's faced every shot.
Against Miami, his teammates' strong effort created limited play in the UNH end. The Wildcat defense effectively blocked shots and clogged their opponent's passing lanes to limit the action in front of DiGirolamo.
In fact, there were multiple stretches where the junior didn't see any action. But that period of inactivity is not necessarily always a good thing.
"Growing up, I used to think, 'Stay down there, stay there,'" DiGirolamo said about not frequently facing shots. "But I learned when you think like that, bad things happen. Now I definitely like to get my shots too. I like seeing the puck."
As UNH looks toward its first Frozen Four since 2003, the ability of DiGirolamo to keep seeing the puck well and making critical saves will be paramount.