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Drew Bonifant

Drew Bonifant: Sorkin thriving in return from hand injury

DURHAM – There didn’t seem to be anything unusual about the moment. It’s a play that happens often in hockey: The player takes the puck, dumps it down the ice, takes the ensuing hit, and the play continues.

But when Nick Sorkin dumped the puck last New Year’s Eve against Bemidji State and took the hit from a Beaver player, it turned out something was unusual. His hand throbbed. He immediately skated back to the bench, eventually returned and all the while tried to keep his attention and focus on the action on the ice instead of the pain in his glove.

He thought it wasn’t a big deal. It was. It was a broken hand, kick-starting months of sitting out of games, struggling in them and wondering when his game was going to return.

“It was definitely tough,” the senior forward said. “The toughest part personally was … it wasn’t going, individually, as I really wanted it to last year, and then to get injured is just very frustrating. It kind of accumulates on you.”

Another holiday season has arrived, and Sorkin isn’t just back. He’s back. The team’s leading scorer his sophomore year, Sorkin has been the player he wasn’t given the chance to develop into last year. He’s the Wildcats’ leading goal scorer, and a presence on the score sheet nearly every game. But there’s no gloating from the player who’s left any lingering hint of his injury in the past, where it belongs.

“I’m not satisfied. Yet,” he said. “I look at it as a good start, but it’s kind of like a “what-have-you-done lately’ attitude, I think.”

All he’s done lately is serve as the lifeblood for an offense that has had difficulty consistently getting anything from anyone else donning a UNH jersey. The Wildcats are 20th in the country in scoring, having potted 60 goals in 19 games. Sorkin, however, has 11 of them, good for a tie for 12th in the nation and fourth in Hockey East, and he’s registered a point in all but three games so far.

“I think he’s affected the team quite a bit, obviously,” Coach Dick Umile said. “He’s scored goals for us, and we’ve struggled to score goals. Thank God he’s been scoring.”

It would have been hard to predict a return to form like this. It didn’t seem plausible, not after a wasted year that turned for the worse that night at Dartmouth when Sorkin’s scaphoid snapped after his hand and wrist went awkwardly into the boards. The forward thought he’d be able to shake it off, then realized something more serious had occurred.

“I got back to the bench and it kind of felt like something was wrong, but I didn’t think that it was a broken bone or anything like that,” he said. “Unfortunately the next day, I couldn’t move my hand, at all.”

The scaphoid is a small bone located where the hand meets the wrist, but an injury to it is a big problem. Hands and wrists are everything in hockey. Sorkin did return a few weeks later, but wearing a variety of bulky casts, he couldn’t shoot, couldn’t pass and couldn’t manage the puck the way he had when he posted nine goals and a team-high 26 assists the year before. It showed – he scored no goals and had just six assists in 13 games after undergoing surgery.

“It’s a low part of my career,” he said.

When the season ended, Sorkin’s work began. He rehabbed intensely during the summer. He used weighted socks to stretch his hand over a table and strengthen the ligaments. He did wrist rolls before and after practice and workouts. He put his hand in a bucket filled with rice and stretched out his fingers. The hand had to improve, but so did the wrist, and so did his grip.

“We have a philosophy that separation’s preparation,” he said. “I’m really glad with the way … I prepared to come into this year. I really worked hard this summer.”

When the players showed up in the early fall for the first practices, that work was beginning to pay off, and Sorkin’s teammates were noticing.

“I said to myself, ‘He’s definitely back,’ ” senior center Kevin Goumas said. “He’s gotten so much quicker from sophomore and junior year.”

Still, it took a while for the results to reflect that progress. UNH started 1-5-1, and though Sorkin was involved in the offense, with three goals and three assists to that point, he was getting considerably more chances to score than he was capitalizing on. Then Umile switched up the lines, putting Sorkin with Goumas and right wing Matt Willows, and the roll started. Sorkin scored goals in four straight wins, another in a loss to Providence for five in six games, then three in a pair of wins over Colorado College, for a total of eight in a nine-game stretch in which UNH went 7-2 and saw its overall record climb over .500.

“He’s been having a stretch of a lot of goals, and you know, anytime you play with somebody so hot like that, it’s pretty easy,” Goumas said. “It’s like playing with Sidney Crosby. He’s been doing the right things. A lot of his goals, they might not be flashy, but he’s in the right spot.”

Sorkin’s scoring knack speaks for itself, but according to Umile, he’s been able to contribute – and help others contribute – in other aspects of the game.

“He’s big, he’s strong, he’s very rangy,” the coach said. “He can really skate. The kid, we put him on the wing to use his speed, to break down the wing and take it to the net and that’s what he’s been doing.

“We put him along with Willows and Goumas and that’s been a solid line for us. They get great scoring opportunities and he’s been able to finish. He’s helped that line become one of the better lines, I believe, in the league.”

That stretch allowed UNH to begin to salvage what was on the way to becoming a lost season – and for Sorkin, it allowed hockey to feel like a game again after a year plagued with frustration and disappointment.

“When you start kind of playing well, it’s just a kind of momentum and domino effect, and things start going your way,” he said. “It just makes you excited to come to the rink every day.”

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

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