Team of the Week: New Hampshire
Dick Umile isn't making too much of this being his last season as head coach at New Hampshire. To him, the announcement was made, it is what it is, and he'll keep coaching like he always has.
"They're fine," Umile said of his players. "They want to play college hockey, they want to go on and play after this, I happen to be the coach still. It's not affecting them. They're just focused on their season having nothing to do with me, so I don't think I need to anything special, nor do they."
But forgive the rest of America (at least those outside of Maine) if it isn't rooting a little extra for the Wildcats this year, hoping one of college hockey's great people gets to go out with a bang.
The hopes and dreams of observers didn't stop them, of course, from giving honest assessments about UNH. CHN's own preseason preview has the 'Cats pegged ninth out of 11 in Hockey East. The program made the NCAAs 12 out of 14 years under Umile, but hasn't done so now since 2013.
New Hampshire, however, might just have the pieces to surprise this season, and turn those hopes into reality. That was on display in this past weekend's home-and-home sweep of Massachusetts-Lowell to open the season, which earned the 'Cats CHN's first Team of the Week for 2017-18. For now, it remains just a hope, but keep an eye on UNH.
"Obviously, if there's some tricks I can pull, I'll be pulling anything out I can," Umile said. "But we have a strong senior class of eight guys, and I can't think of a better group to get one more kick at the can with, and we want to go out with a bang. The guys have really worked hard in the offseason and preseason and practice. We're going to try to maintain the work ethic and play hard and give ourselves an opportunity to win."
New Hampshire started the season with a decent first period against Lowell on Friday, but fell behind. In the second period, the Wildcats exploded for two goals and a 15-4 shot advantage. They held a 3-2 lead late when Lowell scored with an extra attacker on its fourth power play of the period, only to see UNH come back and get the game winner with 14 seconds remaining.
In Saturday's home opener, UNH again fell behind 1-0, but then scored the next three goals, and this time tightened up defensively and held on for the win.
It was a heartwarming display of execution for Umile, who emphasized better team defense this year. Last season, a team led by Tyler Kelleher's 63 points could score goals, but the defense was porous and goalie Danny Tirone's save percentage has been barely over .900 for two seasons. That's just not good enough.
But Umile has stuck with Tirone because he believes he can make the saves.
"He can make the big save," Umile said. "We didn't play well in front of him last year. We struggled the second half, to score goals and keep it out of our net. And I wouldn't blame him, but the people in front of him (moreso). If we play well defensively, we give ourselves a good shot every night with Tirone in the net."
Despite losing Kelleher's output, New Hampshire will probably find a way to get goal scoring again. It seemingly does every year, often from someone most of America never heard of before. UNH recruits a lot of smaller, speedy players, who are encouraged to make plays. For a lot of guys, this pays off eventually, when their point totals explode.
The offense should also get a boost when [[Patrick Grasso]] returns to the lineup. Grasso had 20 goals last season, including nine on the power play, but has been hurt so far. Senior Jason Salvaggio, who had 23 goals last season, was held scoreless this past weekend, but is getting chances.
Meanwhile, a number of players who are on the verge of taking big leaps forward, were the ones who got on the scoresheet. Liam Blackburn, Ara Nazarian, Frankie Cefalu and Marcus Vela are in that group. And then there's senior Shane Eiserman, a 4th-round draft pick of Ottawa in 2014 who had a career-high 5 goals last season. He doesn't fit the prototypical UNH mold, at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, but that gives the team another dimension.
"He's a big, powerful forward," Umile said. "He can forecheck with the best of them. He has a powerful shot. We can put him in front of the net on the power play. We try to get him to take it to the net and get a shot. He's not a finesse, puck-handling forward. It's all power with him with a good shot. So hopefully he can do that and get his share of goals."
The real test may come defensively, however. That's where the focus has been, both in preseason workouts, practices, and in recruiting. New Hampshire brought in a pair of highly-regarded freshman defensemen this season — Max Gildon out of the U.S. National Program, a 3rd-round draft pick; and Benton Maass, a 6th-round pick by Washington. Though they fit into the mold of 6-foot-2-plus defenseman that the Wildcats are filled with, they also bring an agility that might have been lacking.
"We got better. We can get the puck out of our zone, we don't get hemmed in as often because they can handle the puck and make plays," Umile said. "They're big but they're very athletic. They see the ice. They can beat forecheckers, make plays, and get us out of the zone. That's been a big difference along with better team defense."
UNH has non-league weekends with Colgate and Colorado College coming up, both at home, so it has a chance to be in good shape before the grueling Hockey East schedule kicks in.
Umile's last ride will be a special one, one way or another. Just how good it will be, remains an open question. For now, things are business as usual.
"People have asked me if I'm ready for it. I believe I am, but it's all about the hockey season right now," Umile said. "You're in practice every day with the guys, getting ready for the weekend series.
"We'll see. People say it's different. But I haven't thought a whole lot about it other than trying to have a solid season here."