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All sorts of possibilities in play as Wildcats head into finale

Dick Umile’s message to his University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team has held up through a tense Hockey East homestretch. Focus on the next game, the next day, the next opponent.

But even the coach is allowing himself and his team to revel in the moment that this weekend provides. It’s the last weekend of the Hockey East season, after all, and archrival Maine is due in the Whittemore Center to close out the slate.

And, oh yeah, the Wildcats could find themselves Sunday with home-ice advantage in the playoffs and a regular-season conference championship.

“It’s a fun time of year,” Umile said. “We’ve got an opportunity to compete for a league championship, a regular-season championship, we’ve got an opportunity to compete for the NCAA tournament. Just good things going on, and we’re playing Maine.

“It’s why you go to college and compete in Division I hockey, just to be involved in weekends like this.”

The fourth-ranked Wildcats (18-8-6, 13-7-5) need a little help for the regular-season title, but not much. UNH trails UMass Lowell by a point in the standings, and while it plays the Black Bears (10-17-7, 6-12-7) tonight and tomorrow, the River Hawks have to deal with No. 18 Providence, which is only two points out in third.

If UNH sweeps Maine and the River Hawks tie or lose one of their games, the Wildcats, who won all three games against UMass-Lowell this year, take the title.

“Lot going on, that’s for sure. Big weekend,” senior defenseman and captain Connor Hardowa said. “I think the way we’ve got to look at it, and the way we’ve been approaching it so far, is we’ve just got to win (today). … None of that’s going to happen if we don’t win (today).”

A win today would be enough to salvage something, as it would clinch home ice for the Hockey East quarterfinals.

“That was a goal we had at the beginning of the season,” said senior forward John Henrion, last week’s Hockey East co-Player of the Week. “Obviously, that’d be huge for us.”

Don’t expect Maine to hand those accomplishments to the Wildcats, however. This is a weekend of urgency for the Black Bears, who are only a point away from falling out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference – not that they need any extra incentive to ruin their nemesis’s big weekend.

“I don’t think I ever thought that Maine would be out of it, and I don’t think I ever thought it wouldn’t be a big weekend when you have Maine and UNH playing,” Umile said. “I’m sure their biggest goal this weekend is to come here and take it to us.”

Behind the scenes

A season that has been enjoyable for most of the Wildcats has been a miserable one for Greg Burke. The senior forward was sidelined with a shoulder injury in November, and his return lasted only four games before he suffered a concussion in a Jan. 11 loss to Boston College that has kept him out since.

Umile repeatedly stopped short of calling Burke’s season, and therefore his UNH career, over, but sounded down on his chances of returning anytime soon.

“It’s just been a real difficult season for him,” he said. “He’s not close (to coming back). … He’s not going to be around for the next week or so, so that would make it difficult for him, but I’m not going to say it’s over.”

Even with the injury, Burke, one of the team’s alternate captains, has found a way to help. According to Umile, the senior has been an active participant in team meetings, trying to contribute even if he’s not in a jersey, pads and skates.

“He was at our team meeting (Wednesday),” he said. “He brings a lot to the team, just being there and his few words of wisdom and his experience.”

Senior moments

It’s senior weekend in Durham, and the series against Maine will be the final regular-season home games for several of UNH’s top players.

The sendoff will honor captain Hardowa and alternates Brett Kostolansky and Burke, while leading goal scorers Henrion and Austin Block (13 apiece) and fourth-line center Scott Pavelski will also be included in the ceremony.

According to Umile, the seniors on the team have played a big role in molding the team into the successful group it’s been.

“They lead by example,” he said. “They kind of brought this team together with great leadership, not only from the captain, but the seniors, they accepted the younger guys in the locker room. The chemistry in the locker room is as solid as the team is.”

Even with the ceremony before the game tomorrow, there will still be plenty of business at hand once the puck is dropped, and Henrion said maintaining focus won’t be a challenge.

“Maybe at first. It shouldn’t be bad, though,” he said. “Once the ceremony at the beginning of the game gets over, you kind of just get in the groove of things. … I don’t think it should affect the way we play or the way we come out.”

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

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