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UNH hockey: With season’s end, satisfaction with resolve meets regret at missed chances

  • New Hampshire players gathers in front of the net after losing 4-0 to Massachusetts-Lowell in the Hockey East championship game in Boston, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

    New Hampshire players gathers in front of the net after losing 4-0 to Massachusetts-Lowell in the Hockey East championship game in Boston, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

  • New Hampshire's Matt Willows (9) gets tied up with Massachusetts-Lowell's Christian Folin (26) and Connor Hellebuyck (37) in the second period of the Hockey East championship game in Boston, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

    New Hampshire's Matt Willows (9) gets tied up with Massachusetts-Lowell's Christian Folin (26) and Connor Hellebuyck (37) in the second period of the Hockey East championship game in Boston, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

  • New Hampshire's Grayson Downing (28) handles the puck in front of UMass Lowell's Scott Wilson (23) in the first period of the Hockey East championship game in Boston, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

    New Hampshire's Grayson Downing (28) handles the puck in front of UMass Lowell's Scott Wilson (23) in the first period of the Hockey East championship game in Boston, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

  • New Hampshire's Grayson Downing (28) handles the puck in front of UMass Lowell's Scott Wilson (23) in the first period of the Hockey East championship game in Boston, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

    New Hampshire's Grayson Downing (28) handles the puck in front of UMass Lowell's Scott Wilson (23) in the first period of the Hockey East championship game in Boston, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

  • New Hampshire players gathers in front of the net after losing 4-0 to Massachusetts-Lowell in the Hockey East championship game in Boston, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

    New Hampshire players gathers in front of the net after losing 4-0 to Massachusetts-Lowell in the Hockey East championship game in Boston, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

  • New Hampshire players gathers in front of the net after losing 4-0 to Massachusetts-Lowell in the Hockey East championship game in Boston, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
  • New Hampshire's Matt Willows (9) gets tied up with Massachusetts-Lowell's Christian Folin (26) and Connor Hellebuyck (37) in the second period of the Hockey East championship game in Boston, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
  • New Hampshire's Grayson Downing (28) handles the puck in front of UMass Lowell's Scott Wilson (23) in the first period of the Hockey East championship game in Boston, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
  • New Hampshire's Grayson Downing (28) handles the puck in front of UMass Lowell's Scott Wilson (23) in the first period of the Hockey East championship game in Boston, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
  • New Hampshire players gathers in front of the net after losing 4-0 to Massachusetts-Lowell in the Hockey East championship game in Boston, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

DURHAM – Given the way the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey season alternated between frustration and encouragement, it would make sense for even the most decisive pundit to be left with a conflicted evaluation.

Which truth is the prevailing sentiment? That this Wildcats team was not good enough for inclusion in the national tournament for the second time in three years? Or that it was one win, one better night away from being the champion of one of the sport’s toughest conferences?

The latter is what Coach Dick Umile emphasized to his team after its season ended last weekend with a loss in the Hockey East championship game to UMass Lowell, and it more closely resembled his tone yesterday as he summed up a season in which it was hard to gauge just how far the Wildcats, ranked 13th at the start of the year and 18th at the end,

were capable of going.

“I thought these guys stayed together, put a run together and got themselves into the championship game in what is, without doubt, the best league in the country,” he said. “You just look at the teams that are in the NCAA tournament, and we weren’t far from … making it. That tells you the depth of the league, and (this) team made it to the championship game.”

Two years ago, when the Wildcats went 15-19-3 and missed the tournament after struggling all year to right themselves, Umile was disappointed. That wasn’t the mood this time. He knows that, with a 22-18-1 record despite a brutal non-conference schedule, the Wildcats are capable of playing in the NCAA tournament. He lauded the leadership on the team, and had nothing but praise for how the players pulled off their best hockey late in the year, when they needed it most.

But it wasn’t perfect. There were frustrations and disappointments throughout the year, and ample chances for regret. There was the season-ending injury to Trevor van Riemsdyk and nagging injuries for Grayson Downing, Matt Willows and Jeff Silengo. There was the 1-5-1 start that forced UNH to play catch-up the rest of the way. There was a home sweep at the hands of Union College, and a disastrous two-game set at home against Vermont near season’s end, and they combined to do damage to the Wildcats’ postseason hopes that even an inspired run to the Hockey East final couldn’t overcome.

“I’m going back to our games against Lowell earlier in the year (two losses), our games with Michigan (a loss in overtime and a tie), we should have won a couple of those games,” Umile said. “We lost those, and those are the ones that you can look back … and (they) knocked us out.”

He wasn’t alone. The UNH players felt it too, that the missed chances were piling up and coming at bad times. Willows called it a “roller coaster.” And Downing drew comparisons between what he went through, battling a pair of shoulder injuries, and the team’s year-long saga.

“I felt like I’d be playing well and something would just go wrong. … It just felt like nothing really got going,” said Downing, who finished with 10 goals and 12 assists in 34 games. “It felt like that with the team too. I felt we would hit our stride, and someone would get a bad break with guys going down or losing a game that we shouldn’t have.”

The losses kept coming even after the season ended. Top goal scorer Nick Sorkin, top point scorer Kevin Goumas and captain Eric Knodel, all seniors, signed deals with NHL teams after their careers ended, but van Riemsdyk, a junior, left early, signing with the Chicago Blackhawks.

“We probably figured (van Riemsdyk was gone). We never, ever talked, he never told me he was leaving,” Umile said. “But the opportunity was going to be there, and it’s very, very difficult … to keep a junior that’s that talented.”

As expected as the departures were, they nonetheless leave the Wildcats with a lot of holes to fill. Four forwards from the top three lines against UMass Lowell are gone, as are three of the top defensemen in Knodel, van Riemsdyk and Justin Agosta. Eight players in total are leaving, giving the Wildcats a lot of work to do even in a sport where change is routine.

“This will be a lot,” said Umile, who estimated a large incoming freshman class of eight to 10 players. “Probably 60 percent of our scoring is graduating.”

The Wildcats do have key pieces coming back. Goalie Casey DeSmith will be in net for his senior season. And Downing and Willows, whose 18 goals were third on the team, are natural heirs to the scoring roles.

“Grayson and I have big shoes to fill,” Willows said. “We’re going to have to give more than we gave this year. … Every year we’ve got guys that leave, and guys just have to step up and fill those roles.”

There won’t be much time to figure it out. One year after playing six out-of-conference games against ranked opponents, the Wildcats will again try to tackle a schedule stacked with strong opponents. It’s the way Umile likes to get the team ready for the tougher games, and he said the players feel the same way.

The tests will come early. The season opener will be at Union, which enters the NCAA tournament today as the No. 1 team in the country. Even on the heels of a trying season, Umile took a humorous approach to the challenge.

“At Union, that’s our opener. Wow. … I should have revisited that,” he said. “Maybe they won’t be ready to play. They’ll still be partying. They’ll win the whole thing, they’ll be partying, they’ll be fat and feeling good about themselves and we can sneak in. That’s the plan.”

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

Related

Friday, March 28, 2014

OUT AND IN A look at the UNH hockey team’s top departing players, and the top names presumably coming back for the 2014-15 season. Leaving Kevin Goumas: 52 points, 33 assists (led team), 19 goals Nick Sorkin: 20 goals (led team), 21 assists, 41 points Eric Knodel: Plus-16 rating, 28 points (led defensemen) Trevor van Riemsdyk: Plus-13 rating, 23 points …

Legacy Comments1

When is someone going to put some blame for the lack of success of the UNH hockey team where it should be directed--at the coach, Dick Umile. Five teams from Hockey East made the NCAA playoff. The selection committee clearly knows that Hockey East is the strongest league and UNH missed the playoffs again! NH hockey fans deserve better. Umile is the highest paid state employee. If he was an elected official, he likely would have been replaced by now. I think that it is time to stop patronizing the coach and players. They have been underachieving for years.

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