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UNH HOCKEY NOTEBOOK

The race is on

More than usual suspects chase title

  • Kevin Goumas of University of New Hampshire makes an attempt to control the puck in their game at University of Massachusetts Lowell; Friday November 16, 2012.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor Staff)

    Kevin Goumas of University of New Hampshire makes an attempt to control the puck in their game at University of Massachusetts Lowell; Friday November 16, 2012.

    (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor Staff)

  • John Henrion of University of New Hampshire takes a shot in their game at University of Massachusetts Lowell; Friday November 16, 2012.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor Staff)

    John Henrion of University of New Hampshire takes a shot in their game at University of Massachusetts Lowell; Friday November 16, 2012.

    (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor Staff)

  • Kevin Goumas of University of New Hampshire makes an attempt to control the puck in their game at University of Massachusetts Lowell; Friday November 16, 2012.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor Staff)
  • John Henrion of University of New Hampshire takes a shot in their game at University of Massachusetts Lowell; Friday November 16, 2012.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor Staff)

Dick Umile sat at the media conference table back in December, discussed the battle for Hockey East standing and mentioned the teams in position for the top spot. The list was brief, and included his University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team, Boston College and Boston University.

Nowadays, the Wildcats coach will be the first to admit how drastically the landscape has changed. With five weekends left, what began as a three-horse derby has turned into a wide-open race.

No. 5 BC and No. 4 UNH still top the conference, but they’re hardly running away from the pack. In third isn’t BU, but Merrimack, surging with only one loss in its past seven games. Next are the Terriers, the 13th-ranked team in the nation, and they’re followed by Providence College, UNH’s opponent tomorrow and Wednesday. Only three points separate the Wildcats and Friars, and all four teams have a game in hand over the Eagles, who sit with a two-point cushion in first.

With the season in its homestretch, the race is tighter than ever – and the price for a bad weekend has never been so costly.

“Right here now, with everybody having the game in hand with Boston College, you can go from 1 to 6 on the weekend,” Umile said. “It’s a battle. Everybody’s in the same boat here. It’s up for grabs.”

While the rest of Hockey East has risen up toward the top of the conference, UNH (16-7-2, 11-6-1) has missed chances to distance itself from the crowd. The Wildcats are 5-5 since the holiday break, and they’ve dropped five of their last eight games against Hockey East opponents.

Last weekend summed up the missed opportunities that have plagued the team in the second half. UNH traveled to Boston and earned a 3-1 road victory over Northeastern, then dominated Merrimack in every area but on the scoreboard in a 4-1 loss at home the next night.

“The disappointing part about Saturday night is it’s as well as we’ve played,” said Umile, whose team outshot the Warriors, 52-24.

It was the kind of game UNH would win far more often than not, which was a takeaway Umile was sure to share with his team. It was a loss in the standings, but the effort was a winning one.

“I told the team, ‘We need to play like that all the time,’ ” Umile said. “More often than not, we’ll be okay if we’re playing like that.”

UNH will need that type of effort against Providence and next weekend as well, as a game against BC looms, and these three games can determine UNH’s chances at staying at the top in an increasingly competitive conference.

“I haven’t seen the conference this tight since I’ve been at UNH,” senior forward Austin Block said. “We need to find a way to win games, and now’s a good time to start.”

Revenge in the rematch

It’s been three weeks since Providence and UNH last skated against each other. For the Wildcats, it’s likely been three weeks spent trying to erase every last memory from that night.

The Friars came to the Whittemore Center Jan. 19, struck fast and never let up. Providence (10-10-5, 8-6-4) had a 4-0 lead less than nine minutes into the second period, forcing an end to goalie Casey DeSmith’s night and leaving the players to wonder what exactly went wrong in the 6-5 defeat.

“I think we underestimated them last time,” Block said. “We didn’t backcheck and funnel back in the zone like we need to, and they capitalized. That’s going to be huge.”

Make no mistake, payback is on the Wildcats’ minds.

“It’s still bitter, I think, in a lot of players’ minds, about losing to them,” Block said. “(It’s) going to be about some revenge, getting four points and hopefully taking care of business in the conference.”

UNH has reason for confidence going in. After falling in the early hole, the Wildcats nearly pulled off the rally, scoring three third-period goals to cut the gap to a point.

UNH knows it can figure out the Friars defense and goalie Jon Gillies. The key is keeping the Providence offense from having the easy night it did in January.

“They’re really good down low. They like to control the puck below the goal line, work off both posts, and that’s difficult for a defense,” senior defenseman Brett Kostolansky said. “Most teams do that, but they do it more often, and it’s more prevalent in their game than other teams.”

Injury report

It’s been a difficult road back to action for injured forward Nick Sorkin, but Umile sounded enthusiastic in his latest report on the junior’s recovery from a broken left hand.

“He’s getting there,” he said. “It’s not as painful. (The cast) is still cumbersome for him, but I think he’s getting that cast off at the beginning of the week.”

The coach also praised Sorkin’s play, which resulted in assists in each of his last two games, even with the cast on.

“He played pretty well on Saturday night,” he said. “That’s a good sign, him getting back.”

Umile sounded more concerned about senior forward Greg Burke, who’s been out with a concussion since a Jan. 11 loss to Boston College.

“He’s slowly getting there, but he’s got a way to go,” he said. “At this point in the season, it’s getting late. … He’s going to need time to get back at it. It’s going to be tough for him.”

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

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