UNH, Umile Seek to End 10-Year Title Drought
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
BOSTON Ten seasons ago, it was New Hampshire and everybody else in Hockey East.
Dick Umile's Wildcats defeated Boston University, 1-0, in overtime to clinch their second consecutive Hockey East championship in 2003. A year earlier, they followed Darren Haydar to a 3-1 defeat of Maine to earn their first-ever league championship. Each time, UNH advanced to the Frozen Four only to be dispatched — first by Maine in a national semifinal then by Minnesota in a national championship game.
Tough outs on the national stage aside, the Wildcats looked to enter a promising era for the program. Whether it was parity, the domination of Boston College or just rotten luck, something changed. UNH's last time lifting the Lamoriello Trophy was that night in 2003. Strong regular seasons and NCAA tournament appearances have come, but the trophies haven't followed.
"I can't speak to the last 10 years," Umile said. "We've had some good teams that haven't gotten this far. We've played well in the NCAA Regionals, too. I'm just happy that this team is here. It's all about right now. I can't worry about the last 10 years. We've been competing with some good teams."
Friday night, UNH defeated Providence, 3-1, in a Hockey East semifinal. Senior winger Kevin Goumas continued his tear, scoring twice. Junior goaltender Casey DeSmith made 25 saves. Senior defenseman Eric Knodel dominated his own zone. It was, in many ways, a perfect performance for the Wildcats.
"We've wanted to get here," Umile said. "It's a hard place to get to quite honestly. I said (on Thursday), it's hard to get to this point here in the Garden. It's real difficult to get here. I'm thrilled to take the guys here. Being from Boston, I love to take UNH hockey to the Boston Garden. This team here is a special team."
They've had some of those during this drought before. Whether it was Kevin Regan's 62 saves in a triple-overtime loss to BC in 2008 or Jeff Pietrasiak's 31 in 2005's defeat also at the hands of BC, it just hasn't been enough.
Saturday night, the Wildcats get another chance to end their 10-year drought. In their way stands Massachusetts-Lowell, a preseason favorite and defending league champion, which dispatched Notre Dame with alarming ease in Friday's first semifinal.
"They're a very, very good team, one of the best in the country," Umile said of Lowell. "Norm (Bazin)'s done a terrific job with them. They've got goaltending. They've got defense. We played them earlier in the season, and I thought we played well against them. We lost both games, one in overtime, but we played well."
The hurdle presented by Lowell isn't lost on anyone at UNH. However, the opportunity presented is just as evident. Goumas said following the win that he, like so many seniors around the country, has spent the last few weeks desperately trying to prolong his career. Getting past a tough Northeastern team on Sunday with a 5-4 win in Game 3 of the Hockey East Quarterfinals meant another of those dazzling performances UNH's has so often seen. Goumas' hat trick punched the Wildcats' ticket to Boston — a feat not lost on his coach.
"He's determined not to have his season end," Umile said. "He's played well for us all season. He's had a terrific year. It's great to see the puck go in for him because he's set up Nick (Sorkin) and Matt (Willows) an awful lot this season. … So it's nice when the puck goes in for him."
Few programs around the country can boast the type of success Umile's brought to Durham in his 24 years leading his alma mater. These past 10 years without a championship haven't sat well with him nor the program's rabid supporters.
Umile says he hasn't felt any internal pressure due to the drought. The external pressure is there, though. Umile's success comes with expectations of regular trips to the league's semifinals and championship game, as well as titles. Prior to this season, UNH was absent from four the previous five semifinal rounds.
Hockey East is plainly better than it was in years prior. Still, this is New Hampshire, and the demand won't wane until it's Umile holding that trophy. Judging his success solely based on winning this tournament may be unfair given his other accomplishments — 17 NCAA Tournament appearances and four trips to the Frozen Four. That doesn't mean they aren't there.
Saturday night presents UNH's latest chance to end its trophy drought. The challenge is clear.
"It's about winning the next game," Umile said. "It's all about the next game. In years past, even though we did not get here, we got to play in the NCAA Tournament because had great seasons. This year was a season that we played pretty well. We didn't win as many games as we thought we could've won. Now it comes down to us needing to win a championship game to get to the NCAA Tournament. That's our goal."
UMass-Lowell is among the nation's best. The Wildcats have already proved they can play with anyone. It's been a successful season for Dick Umile's club, but 11 years is a long time.