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Consistency the goal as UNH men’s hockey prepares for homestretch

The second-half slump was nearing a month in length, and University of New Hampshire men’s hockey captain Connor Hardowa and the rest of the seniors on the team had seen enough. They got the players together before last Saturday’s game against Merrimack, went over January’s inconsistent play and decided that things had to change, and change fast.

“It just felt like the right time,” said Hardowa, whose team is only 4-4 since the holiday break. “We just felt that we’ve kind of fallen off our track a little bit. We just needed a reminder as a team, to remember where we are. We can’t be sitting on what happened before Christmas because we haven’t really impressed anybody.”

The meeting passed the first test. The Wildcats went onto the ice inspired, and bounced back from a 3-2 loss to the Warriors by beating them, 6-2, at Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester.

Now comes the second test: turning that inspiration into consistency in the second half, with Hockey East position waiting to be determined.

“We need to be more consistent, be a tougher team to play against,” Coach Dick Umile said. “This is the time of the season. You look at the league, the team that can get on a roll on the weekend is going to put itself in good position.”

UNH, the No. 3 team in the country, is two points behind Boston College for the top spot in the conference, but the Wildcats (15-6-2, 10-5-1) have a comfortable closing stretch. The remaining 11 games are against opponents that are a combined 97-127-38, and only one of the teams is currently over .500. The games start this weekend, against Northeastern (7-12-3, 4-10-3) tonight and Merrimack (10-10-5, 8-6-2) tomorrow, but Umile doesn’t buy the notion that his team can cruise to the finish line.

“It’s going to be tough,” he said. “Northeastern’s battling, Merrimack’s battling, Providence is battling. … Vermont’s playing well right now. Everybody’s tough.”

Recent games show Umile isn’t dishing out false praise. Last-place Maine swept BC last weekend, and Northeastern, only one point in front of the Black Bears, topped third-place Boston University two weeks ago.

“I think it serves as pretty good reminder that nobody’s safe, especially in this conference,” Hardowa said. “No matter who you play, you’ve got to respect your opponent.”

Thoughts on the Huskies

The Wildcats are dealing with both ends of the familiarity spectrum this weekend. On one hand, there’s Merrimack, tomorrow’s opponent, which UNH will be playing for the third time in eight days. But the Wildcats also go up against Northeastern tonight for the first time since Oct. 27, and Umile said the Huskies have been drawing most of UNH’s focus.

“That makes this weekend interesting,” Umile said. “Northeastern’s been playing pretty good hockey. … They’re playing well, they’re quick. They have a couple of key players in (senior forwards Vinny) Saponari and (Garrett) Vermeersch.”

The Huskies have looked good at times, but have had trouble putting complete games together. After the win over Boston University, Northeastern had BC tied 3-3 before falling apart in a 9-3 loss, and led UMass-Lowell 4-2 and 4-1 in the third period before winding up with a 4-4 tie and 5-4 defeat, respectively.

There’s also the question of which goalie UNH faces tonight. Both Bryan Mountain and Chris Rawlings have seen action in net for the Huskies, but Umile said he expects to see Mountain, the senior who stopped all of UNH’s 44 shots in a scoreless tie Oct. 27.

“I don’t think Rawlings had a whole lot of luck against us,” Umile said. “(Mountain) stoned us the last time we played against him. He’s a good little goalie.”

Injury report

The Wildcats got some good news on the health front going into their weekend series, as Brett Pesce, a solid presence in the third defensive group all season, could be back in the mix after missing the win over Merrimack with a hand injury. Umile said that Pesce has been skating and that, barring last-minute swelling, he should be okay to play.

Umile also said that forward Nick Sorkin has had trouble rebounding from a broken hand, as the cast he wears on his arm has impeded his play. Sorkin returned in the first game against Merrimack and notched an assist, but was back on the bench in the win the next day.

“It’s not easy what he’s going through,” Umile said. “The thing goes from his wrist to his elbow. I don’t think it’s painful, but it really does limit some of his puck-handling skills.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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