Now No. 1, UNH men’s hockey not ready to relent
The University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team got on the ladder early on and didn’t stop climbing. The Wildcats climbed through their non-conference opening weekend. They climbed through a slate of Hockey East opponents. They went to Colorado to face a pair of nationally ranked teams at Thanksgiving, and climbed through that, too.
UNH can’t climb anymore. The Wildcats have reached the top of the polls, owners of the lofty status as the No. 1 team in college hockey.
That doesn’t mean the work is done. Becoming No. 1 is hard. Staying there is even tougher.
“They’ve earned it, we accept the challenge,” Coach Dick Umile said. “The push gets bigger when you have the No. 1 target on your chest. Teams play harder, and we have to play harder.”
A weekend sweep of UMass-Lowell and a loss by Boston College was enough to vaunt UNH (11-1-2, 8-1-1) into the top spot and cap off what was two months of steady progression through the ranks. The Wildcats haven’t lost in over a month, haven’t lost in regulation at all and are undefeated against ranked opponents.
“I think it’s good for the program and the university. I know a lot of people are excited about it,” Umile said. “We’ll try our darnedest to stay there.”
The feeling the Wildcats have toward the top ranking is one of appreciation as well as caution. They’ll take it. They won’t settle for it.
“We’re not going about anything differently because of that,” Umile said. “No one’s going to go through the motions because we think we’re better than sliced bread here.”
The Wildcats don’t have to look far for perspective. After all, they remain second where it matters most, as Boston College still sits in first place in Hockey East. UNH has a chance to pass the Eagles tonight, but it comes against No. 7 Boston University, the team that ended the BC’s reign in the polls and that, with two earlier losses to UNH, will be determined to avoid a season sweep at the hands of Umile’s crew.
“Our biggest challenge is (tonight),” he said. “It’s always tight with BU. It’s gone both ways, whether you get up on a team, you’ve got to play for 60 minutes. We just want to be in a position to win it at the end of the game.”
Happy for the holidays?
As if the conference and ranking ramifications aren’t enough, tonight’s tilt with the Terriers has a timing aspect to it as well. It’s UNH’s final non-exhibition game before a 24-day break, so a win would provide a great note to finish on, while a loss would make for a lingering frustration.
“If we can win this game, it’d be great. This would be our Christmas present,” Umile said.
The game has the makings of being a close contest. UNH handled the Terriers in a 4-1 win in October, but BU played tougher in a 3-1 loss in November, as the Wildcats needed a 7-for-7 performance on the penalty kill to get the victory.
“They have a young (defensive) group,” UNH junior defenseman Justin Agosta said. “Those guys just needed some time to mature and get better, and they looked a lot better, and I’m sure they’ll look better (tonight) as well.”
While BU’s improved, the Terriers are making up for a personnel loss as well, as first-line forward Yasin Cissé left to resume his hockey career in Canada. Even so, Umile said he expects the team to be tough, both tonight and in the standings down the road.
“I believe they’re a better team than when we played them the last two (games),” Umile said. “Our first goal is to win the regular season. Right now we’re battling BC for that spot, but no doubt BU’s the other contender, in my opinion.”
One of the Terriers’ goals today will undoubtedly be containing junior forward Kevin Goumas. None of UNH’s recent opponents have been able to.
Goumas, the team’s leader in points, assists and plus/minus, upped his point-scoring streak to nine games with an assist in Saturday’s 5-2 win over UMass-Lowell. He’s got seven goals on the season to go with 16 assists (tied for first in Division I) and 23 points (second).
He’s also been a fixture on the penalty kill, assisting on each of Grayson Downing’s team-high three shorthanded goals.
“We’ve been clicking when we’ve been out there on special teams,” Goumas said. “I look to make plays, he’s got great skill, hands. We have a sense of where each other’s going to be on the ice.”
(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)