Northeast Regional Notebook
by Michael King/Staff Writer
MANCHESTER, N.H. Hockey is a game of possession. Though exceptions certainly exist, there is almost always a correlation between possession differential and the result on the ice.
With two of New Hampshire's top centers out of the game injured, it was likely that faceoffs would prove a critical role in deciding the outcome. Though the Wildcats proved that they could still win the puck and maintain possession, they fell, 2-0, to Massachusetts-Lowell in Saturday's NCAA Northeast regional final.
Both Grayson Downing and Kevin Goumas excel — among other things — at beating opponents in the faceoff circle. With their injuries and removal from the line-up, the primary duty fell to junior Jeff Silengo. The forward took the majority of his team's face-offs and performed admirably (9-for-17).
"It's tough losing your top-two centermen, we've gotten contributions from everyone on the team," senior forward John Henrion said. "Every player knows what is expected if they're in the line-up."
"It affects a lot of things," coach Dick Umile added. "They're a big part of the offensive. But I thought the guys who stepped in, they did a good job with the combinations we used. The guys stepped up and gave us a chance to win."
Though Silengo and his fellow UNH centers found success against most River Hawks in the face-off circle, he experienced less success against UML captain Riley Wetmore.
The senior fared well in the dot, winning 10-of-20. Senior forward Josh Holmstrom also strongly contributed with eight wins. Further, it's important to note that most of Wetmore's attempted draws come in the defensive zone. Though Wetmore and line-mates Derek Arnold and Ryan McGrath are able goal-scorers, they also form the team's most defensively-responsible group. The line is consequently charged with matching up against the opponent's most-offensive minded forwards.
Winning a faceoff in the offensive zone is a nice-to-have, while successfully drawing the puck in the defensive zone is a necessity. Establishing possession near the opponent's goal boosts offensive efficiency, but losing a faceoff near your own net creates an immediate problem. After each loss in such a situation, the team must win the puck, clear the zone, then finally break-into the opponent's zone.
Many quality defensive teams like Lowell are proficient at this, but it's unsustainable to repeat many times a game if the River Hawks didn't have a player like Wetmore winning the majority of these draws.
Though the River Hawks won only just over 50 percent of draws, it was the quality of wins which turned the advantage. It seemed every time UML quickly rushed down the ice to set-up a quality scoring chance, including Adam Chapie's goal to give the River Hawks a two-goal lead, it originated from a face-off win seconds earlier (draw won by freshman forward Michael Fallon in the defensive zone prior to Chapie's score).
First on the board
Among other things, UNH has struggled to score first during the majority of this season. When the Wildcats started the year with one loss in their first 14 games, starting the scoring was the expectation. But as UNH's form fell to around a 50 percent winning percentage after the holiday break, much of its struggles could be traced to falling behind early. Saturday night, UML took the initial lead with a goal at 19:31 of the second period.
Naturally, being first on the scoreboard transforms a game in the scoring team's favor. It swings momentum and can force the other team to change its style of play in order to match the goal. Given the Lowell's stout defensive shape and puck-possession style, the Wildcats knew they would be in a difficult position without lighting the red light before their conference rival.
"We played strong the first two periods; it was typical playoff hockey against two gritty teams," Henrion said. "They had a goal right at the end of the second period and they took that right into the third."
Unlike Friday night's win over Denver in the regional semifinal, where the Pioneers earned the game's first goal, the Wildcats preserved and won the game. But that only happened after UNH became a markedly different team after a challenging first period that saw a handful of quality scoring chances for the opposition.
Saturday's regional final posed a unique NCAA circumstance. With the Verizon Wireless Arena essentially equidistant between the UNH and UMass-Lowell campuses, local fans of both schools had the luxury of a short drive to watch their team on the national stage. The largely-full arena (8,357 attendance for the final, about 1,500 short of capacity for hockey) was split with supporters for both sides. And the presence of both program's bands helped lead organized chants and jeers at the opposing fans and players.
The student contingents were also strong for both sides, especially UMass-Lowell as they had considerably more to cheer as the final whistle blew.
"The students have been here for us all season, even here in Manchester, they've been great for us," defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. "We hope to get a good group of them down in Pittsburgh [at the Frozen Four]."
Despite being the away team for the contest by virtue of Lowell being the No. 1 regional seed, UNH maintained the advantage given its familiarity with the facility (Wildcats play at least one game per-year in Manchester) and the pride of playing as the flagship university in its home state. Regardless, the situation created an excellent atmosphere for college hockey. Once the River Hawks had clinched their first Frozen Four appearance in program history, the arena sounded like the Tsongas Center has all season. It remained boisterous as elated UML celebrated and the UNH faithful left the building, disappointed again … The game was played at a relative fast pace even including the every-five-minutes, ESPN-mandated television timeouts (approximately two hours, 30 minutes). The general desire for both teams to avoid making a mistake, created a lack of scoring, penalties, and off-side and icing calls. The referees were much less busy compared with Friday's Wildcat-Pioneer semifinal, which was marked by 45 combined penalty minutes. Play continued unstopped for unusually long increments at various points of the game, including a nearly four-minute stretch in the third … This was the fifth consecutive Manchester regional that featured at least one Hockey East team in the final. It was the first since 2009 (UNH-Boston University) to feature a pair of teams from the host conference. … UMass-Lowell goaltender Connor Hellebuyck won the regional's most outstanding player award. His shutout was the first in program history in the NCAA tournament … Hellebuyck made the all-regional team for Lowell, in addition to Chappie, Ruhwedel, and forward Scott Wilson. Trevor van Riemsdyk and Henrion earned the accolade for UNH.