DeSmith Comes on for UNH
Goalie Recovers from Tough Start in Win
by Michael King/Staff Writer
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MANCHESTER, N.H. During the first 20 minutes of Friday's NCAA first-round matchup against Denver, New Hampshire goaltender Casey DeSmith faced a barrage of Pioneer shots, 19 in total. Given that DeSmith's play has largely dictated Wildcat success, it was a perhaps a harbinger of another NCAA loss for the UNH faithful after DeSmith allowed two of those shots to slip past him.
But intermission exists for teams to make adjustments. And the Wildcats took appropriate advantage. UNH coach Dick Umile helped his team understand how to limit Denver's puck possession and rebalanced the Wildcat defense. The adjustments proved effective enough that the DeSmith faced only 14 more shots for the remainder of the game. Not only did the goalie make every save required in the final 40 minutes, the UNH offense found its rhythm, scoring four more times — including once on the power play.
With their 5-2 win over the Pioneers, the Wildcats face Massachusetts-Lowell in the Northeast Regional final Saturday evening at the Verizon Wireless Arena.
For much of New Hampshire's 2012-13 season, there has been a direct correlation between the play of DeSmith and UNH's record. When he was arguably stopping the puck better than anyone in the country during the season's early months, the Wildcats led in the Pairwise and earned countless regional and national accolades. When teams began to solve DeSmith in late December, UNH struggled to win games.
Entering the regional in Manchester, with the Wildcats as the No. 2 seed and local favorite, the team's success largely rested on the sophomore. Umile reminded his goaltender how critical his play was to the team during practice yesterday on the Manchester ice.
"I said to him, 'they forgot about you,'" he said. "I told him he had a great first half. He made some great saves on the power play. He proved all year that he can bounce back from a disappointing game."
Whereas DeSmith's season was characterized by strong play at the beginning followed by mixed results, Friday's performance proved to be the opposite situation. The goaltender shook off a slow start and became a dependable puck-stopper for the final two periods.
But the slow start wasn't an indication of how the Wildcats matched up against this talented Denver team. It was likely more of a delayed adaption to the pressure of playing in the NCAAs with a crowd very partisan to their cause.
The result of those nerves became Denver dominating puck possession and significantly pressured the UNH blue liners.
"They came out in the first period and earned a lot of scoring chances, though, the shots were kept outside for the most part. But overall, I thought the team defense played stellar tonight," DeSmith said.
Regardless, the first period was an active one for DeSmith. But, unlike some goalies around the country, DeSmith prefers play to be in his side of the rink.
"He likes a lot of work and he plays better when he's getting a lot of shots," Umile said. "He gets into the game and he plays a lot better."
DeSmith noted that he maintains a comfort factor on the Manchester ice. Whereas the Whittemore Center on the UNH campus measures a robust 200 by 100 feet (the maximum rink size allowed in the college game), the Verizon Wireless Arena measures a much more modest 200 by 85 feet.
"I feel a lot more comfortable on the smaller ice, where the shots are flying here and there. It helps me get into the zone and I feel a lot more focused," DeSmith said.
Despite DeSmith's preference of frequently seeing shots, he certainly does not want the responsibility to stop quality scoring chances — nor does any goalie in the country. He faced a handful of those in the first period. With that type of defensive play, the Wildcats knew it was unsustainable if they hoped to advance.
In the locker room after that period, the players acknowledged that the focus of the conversation was to return to playing their own style and doing the things that have made them successful.
"It was really just the team waking up after the first period," DeSmith said. "I think the players did a good job taking what the coaches said, but also adjusting on their own.
DeSmith responded with a responsible effort, especially after his defense became composed and limited the type of shots he faced.
He was most poised late in the third period when the Pioneers earned a 5-on-3 opportunity for 33 seconds. Despite the effort of the penalty kill, DeSmith turned back several quality Pioneer shots and maintained his team's three-goal lead.
Though one shot deflected wide off his mask and another shot hit the post, those are the types of bounces teams need to advance in the highly competitive NCAA tournament. In recent Manchester regionals, the Wildcats have not gotten those bounces, with losses in the 2009 and 2011 finals.
But with DeSmith at his best, there's less fortune and fewer bounces needed to send UNH to its first Frozen Four since 2003.