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UNH men’s hockey starts second half with test against Dartmouth

Christmas decorations are still up for many, and New Year’s remains. But the vacations are over and done with in Durham.

For the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team, it’s time to get back to work.

“No more breaks now,” Coach Dick Umile said.

That means it’s time for the Wildcats (11-2-2, 8-2-1) to shake off their three-week slumber and rediscover that week-in, week-out intensity that allowed them to roar into the holidays with the No. 2 ranking in the country. Physically, UNH is set and ready to go, but as senior defenseman and captain Connor Hardowa said, getting back into the rhythm can be easier said than done.

“Some guys might have a little harder time than others,” he said. “Most guys brought their bags home and jumped on the ice a few times. … It’s more or less getting back in the swing of things and getting back into routines. People were probably sleeping in when they were home, and now they’re getting up to practice.”

The next opponent on the schedule should make it easy to refocus. UNH plays tomorrow and Monday in the Ledyard Bank Classic at Dartmouth and the first matchup is with the No. 10 Big Green, which has the top penalty kill in the country and has won all six games in its home rink.

“I think it’s great that we’re playing Dartmouth,” Umile said. “They’re having a good season. It’s an opportunity to win a game, and it helps you in a lot of ways.”

Umile wasn’t just trying to pump up the tournament. Non-conference wins against top teams improve a team’s strength of schedule and strength of victory, which mean a more favorable seeding in the NCAA tournament as an at-large pick. For that reason, the coach called tomorrow’s game “huge,” and his players showed they got the message.

“I think it’s huge for us to play a ranked team like that,” Hardowa said. “They started off the year great, and I think they’ve kept their momentum going. It’ll be a great challenge for us.”

Burke’s back

As bad as the Wildcats wanted to get back on the ice during the break, Greg Burke’s wait was even tougher to deal with. The forward had been sidelined for more than a month since hurting his shoulder in a Nov. 16 victory over UMass-Lowell, but Umile said he’s ready to return to the lineup tomorrow against Dartmouth.

“He’s a big, strong guy, so we’re going to put him back at center,” he said, adding that Burke had his first practice back with the team Wednesday. “That’ll just give us more strength and depth in the middle.”

Umile said he plans to have Burke center a line with John Henrion and Nick Sorkin tomorrow, but for the senior and alternate captain, just getting back on the ice at all will be good enough after having to watch his teammates play six games without him.

“When you’re losing, you think you can help the team,” said Burke, who has three goals on the season and was playing on the first line at the time of his injury. “When you’re winning, you’re sitting out while everyone else is having a great time. It makes it a little bit more difficult.”

Powerless play

Tomorrow’s game will be like looking in a mirror for the Wildcats. They’ve been stifling on the penalty kill all season long, scoring four shorthanded goals while allowing only two power-play scores and killing 96.3 percent of their opportunities.

The only team better in the entire country will be the other team on the Thompson Arena ice. Dartmouth is No. 1 in the nation, with only one goal allowed in 40 chances.

The similarities go beyond the statistics. Umile said the teams approach being shorthanded the same way, which means trying to force the opponent to make the play.

“Some teams play a passive box. They’re aggressive, they come after you,” he said. “And that’s how we play.”

The UNH power play, meanwhile, has gone stagnant, as a 1-for-9 performance in the first-half finale against Boston University dropped the Wildcats to 33rd in the country with the man advantage.

“You’ve just got to get shots,” he said. “You’ve got to move the puck, you’ve got to get them moving. … You’ve got to move the puck quickly, get it to the net and try to (outnumber them).”

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

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