UNH's Knodel Goes Out as Mr. Reliable
by Michael King/Staff Writer
BOSTON As a freshman, Eric Knodel saw his team’s season end from a position far away from the ice. The New Hampshire defenseman, who in four years would be a leader and his team’s best defenseman, didn’t see playing time his first season at UNH. Unlike the young players in other programs, Knodel wasn’t a healthy scratch because he needed to get stronger or lacked the necessary skill level to contribute immediately. His mentors, the UNH defensive group at that time, were just unusually talented.
Saturday night, Knodel saw his season end again – this time, with notable differences. The senior logged significant ice time against Massachusetts-Lowell in an effort to push his team to a Hockey East championship, as senior leaders do in this conference. The River Hawks won the title, 4-0, behind the exceptional goaltending of Connor Hellebuyck. UNH is not expected to qualify for the NCAAs.
Knodel’s development into a classic experienced, reliable senior defenseman was based on patience and industry.
Most Hockey East defensemen experience at least some ice time in their first season. Though they don’t play in key situations and ice time tapers as the games become increasingly important, the experience is valuable. But Knodel gained experience just by being in the same locker room, participating in the same practices, and having the same college experiences with these UNH upperclassmen in 2010-11.
Beyond the talented defensemen that year, UNH had a prolific first line (Paul Thompson, Mike Sislo, and Phil DeSimone). That team nearly upset Notre Dame in Manchester, N.H., to reach the Frozen Four.
On their way to the Northeast Regional final of the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats played with the same six defensemen in all 39 games – a remarkable set of circumstances for any team.
“It was a tough time for me, just coming in and not knowing what was going to happen,” Knodel said. “I took that year and I grew so much as a person and a player. It was tough, but I knew I had to wait my turn. It made me and my team better.”
However, the season building to the regional final loss was a learning experience in how to lead a team by example. Entering the season, the West Chester, Penn., native felt the Wildcats possessed something similar with its current squad.
“I knew we had a great chance coming in; our senior class has been unbelievable,” Knodel said. “It showed that every single senior was important and put up points for us. So, we knew that we could do something special.”
Fellow senior Justin Agosta experienced the same situation four years ago. He arrived in Durham with Knodel, sat his freshman year, and began to excel immediately after receiving regular minutes in his second season.
On the forward lines, the path to success was accelerated. Current leading scorer Kevin Goumas excelled immediately, combining with Stevie Moses and Mike Borisenok to create a formidable second line that season.
The Wildcats experienced setbacks during the year, including a pair of losses to UML in November. But, the team battled through a challenging Hockey East schedule and earned home-ice in the first round of the conference playoffs.
“It’s been a great couple of weeks, we knew from the start of the year that we had a special team,” Knodel said. “We knew we could do something, we battled through a couple of bumps in the season.”
In many circumstances, Knodel’s offensive contributions, in addition to his ever-present defense, helped the Wildcats recover anytime losses began to string together. The senior was among the leaders in defenseman scoring in Hockey East (7-21-28) and continually propelled the Wildcats from the blue line.
In Saturday’s final, the River Hawks dominance in the neutral zone created the season’s most formidable challenge for UNH.
Although Knodel was on the ice for all four Lowell goals, including one with the extra man advantage, it doesn’t reflect personally on the senior’s effort, ability, or leadership qualities. He threw himself in front of pucks (team-high five blocked shots), directed the power play from the left point, and established the expectation of penalty kill effort – among performing the many other smaller nuances of hockey which make the sport unique.
The River Hawks were too good, for the entire 60 minutes.
“We got some shots and traffic in front of their goalie, but [Hellebuyck] was good at deflecting everything into the corners and eliminating the second-chance opportunities,” the senior said.
For Knodel, the season – the college hockey career – will not continue. However, his effort the past four years, and past 12 months as captain, was spent preparing the next group of young UNH defensemen for its chance to win championships.