Another Year of 'What Could've Been' for New Hampshire
by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter
MANCHESTER, N.H. When they finish dressing for a game, New Hampshire players feel a few more pounds thrust upon their upper bodies. The shoulder pads and helmets, elbow pads and skates, then the expectations of an entire state come last. Resting not so soundly on their shoulders, the hopes of a state packed with 1.3 million people plague UNH hockey players throughout their careers in Durham.
Coming from Derry, N.H., a few miles from the Verizon Wireless Arena and an hour southwest of Durham, UNH senior Paul Thompson’s life included stints as both the weight and its bearer. Sunday night, he felt it more than he has at any point in his four seasons with the Wildcats. As did Phil DeSimone and Mike Sislo, Thompson’s linemates and classmates, also facing their last game in the UNH blue and white.
Sixty minutes from the program’s first Frozen Four since 2003, Thompson and the remaining UNH seniors avoided thoughts of the disappointment they felt in years past.
The puck that kicked off Jerry Pollastrone’s glove into the net to send Boston University to the Frozen Four here in 2009.
The thumping RIT handed the Wildcats in the East Regional final last year in Albany, N.Y.
Given UNH’s opponent Sunday night, the first taste of NCAA Tournament rejection Thompson felt resurfaced as he took the ice.
During his freshman season, UNH traveled to Colorado Springs, Colo., as the No. 1 seed in a regional including No. 4 seed Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish, a developing program at the time, pounced on their opportunity against the favored Wildcats, recovering from 1-0 and 2-1 UNH leads to advance to the regional final with a 7-3 win.
The UNH seniors finalized their collegiate resumes with another crushing loss in the NCAA Tournament after Notre Dame defeated the Wildcats, 2-1, Sunday night. Aside from closing the career on a gifted group of UNH seniors, it clinches the third consecutive loss in a regional final for New Hampshire — the second of which to come in its home state.
“You don’t have to tell me about it,” UNH coach Dick Umile said about the disappointment of three consecutive losses in regional finals. “It’s a lot of disappointment, especially for a team that’s been a great group — a great senior class. They did an awful lot for our team. They’ve been through this three times, along with myself and the staff. I feel for them, they’ve done everything they could possibly do to get to the Frozen Four.”
At times, prior to the second Fighting Irish goal, which came with 5 seconds remaining in the second period, the Wildcats peppered Irish goaltender Mike Johnson and strung together strong shifts, especially their first and second lines.
The moment Billy Maday’s shot slipped past Wildcat goaltender Matt Di Girolamo, though, something disappeared from the UNH players. They lost focus. They veered from the aggressive, organized system that still allows the creative Wildcat players to make a few things up as they go along.
“[Notre Dame] did a great job,” Umile said regarding ND’s ability to stymie the UNH breakout. “We had our chances, though. I thought in the first period we came out and had it going pretty well.
“Early on, I thought we had great jump,” he continued. “We were playing well. Second period, we had a couple looks.”
Finally, with 6:23 left in the third period, senior captain Mike Sislo slapped a centering pass past Johnson. However, even that play seemed more a result of the chaotic mess that was the UNH forecheck and breakout for most of the evening. Defenseman Matt Campanale pinched behind the Notre Dame net, fought for a loose puck and blindly fired it to the slot.
“That’s what we needed,” Sislo said. “We needed pucks out in front of the net.”
There is little doubt that the Wildcat players entered the evening focused, determined to end the program’s streak of seven seasons without a championship or a trip to the Frozen Four. One goal was all it took to fracture the mindset of this UNH team. The will to make plays and win still surfaced, but the understanding that wins come through a system that players must play within disappeared completely.
Top line center Phil DeSimone and second line pivot Mike Borisenok routinely collided with teammates as the Wildcats attempted to enter the zone. Second-line winger Stevie Moses, who spent the last month corralling his speed for the precise moment it could result in a scoring chance, darted from the defensive zone looking for the home run pass, while his teammates fought for pucks in their own zone.
The Wildcats talent kept them in the game Sunday night, especially that of Sislo, Thompson and DeSimone, who, while it wasn’t their most attractive outing, managed to keep Johnson busy and give their teammates hope in their final collegiate game.
“There were a couple of plays I wish I could have back,” an emotional Sislo said. “In the first, on a power play, I had an open net, and I put it high. In the third, the last bomb I put in there missed the net. I wish I could take it back, but I can’t.”
The four teams that will play for a national championship two weeks from now run four lines capable of scoring goals. Four lines that commit to a system outlined by their coaches. Prior to last night, UNH did, as well. With that depth and commitment, the Wildcats looked certain for their first Frozen Four since 2003.
Then Billy Maday scored, and UNH lost it all – again.