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UNH men’s hockey team ready when national tournament comes calling

  • Providence College's Ross Mauermann (14) has his shot blocked by  New Hampshire goaltender Casey DeSmith (29) during the first period of a college hockey game on Saturday March 16, 2013, in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/Providence Journal, Bob Breidenbach) NO SALES

    Providence College's Ross Mauermann (14) has his shot blocked by New Hampshire goaltender Casey DeSmith (29) during the first period of a college hockey game on Saturday March 16, 2013, in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/Providence Journal, Bob Breidenbach) NO SALES

  • Providence College's Ross Mauermann (14) has his shot blocked by  New Hampshire goaltender Casey DeSmith (29) during the first period of a college hockey game on Saturday March 16, 2013, in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/Providence Journal, Bob Breidenbach) NO SALES

    Providence College's Ross Mauermann (14) has his shot blocked by New Hampshire goaltender Casey DeSmith (29) during the first period of a college hockey game on Saturday March 16, 2013, in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/Providence Journal, Bob Breidenbach) NO SALES

  • Providence College's Ross Mauermann (14) has his shot blocked by  New Hampshire goaltender Casey DeSmith (29) during the first period of a college hockey game on Saturday March 16, 2013, in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/Providence Journal, Bob Breidenbach) NO SALES
  • Providence College's Ross Mauermann (14) has his shot blocked by  New Hampshire goaltender Casey DeSmith (29) during the first period of a college hockey game on Saturday March 16, 2013, in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/Providence Journal, Bob Breidenbach) NO SALES

There are five automatic bids for the NCAA Division I hockey tournament, but as far as Dick Umile is concerned, there may as well be six.

Because if you ask the Wildcats coach, UNH is in. The field won’t be formally set until Sunday night, but Umile is beating the selection committee to the punch. He’s made up his mind, and his team has too.

“As far as I’m concerned, we’re in the NCAA tournament,” he said. “I just think it’s going to be almost impossible for us not to be in it, so our plan is to be in it.

“We made the decision (Tuesday). We’re in. I made that decision.”

If it sounds like Umile will

be taking up a few seats on the selection committee, it’s hard to blame him. The No. 10 Wildcats (19-11-7) missed a chance to keep their national destiny in their own hands when they bowed out of the Hockey East quarterfinals, but their coach has no desire to weigh the odds and treat the team’s unsecured tournament hopes as uncertain.

Instead, he knows that the Wildcats will have at least one more game to play. It’ll be the biggest of the season. And they’ll be ready for it.

“We’re confident. We know how we can play,” Umile said. “Within our league, what we’ve gone through in our league, it’s as good as any in the country. … It comes down to, if you get in it, you’ve got to play like you’re capable of playing.”

The numbers back up UNH’s decision to shrug off the waiting process. An eighth-place spot in the PairWise Rankings, which simulate the NCAA tournament selection process, puts the Wildcats right in the middle of the chase, even if the craziest outcome occurs and teams outside of the at-large picture win their conferences and get the automatic bids. And to improve the picture, the Wildcats wouldn’t even have to leave the state if (and when) they make it, as hosting the NCAA regionals automatically puts them at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester.

That doesn’t take the sting out of the team’s early exit from the Hockey East tournament, which happened when UNH lost to Providence in three games. The Wildcats, most notably their five playing seniors, wanted a chance to compete for the title in Boston, but even in the moments following elimination against the Friars, the players were ready for another shot to prove themselves, this time in front of a national audience.

That enthusiasm hasn’t waned.

“I like our team. I’ve said it all year,” senior forward Austin Block said. “Teams are not going to want to come play us in Manchester. I thought we played really well there this year already. It’s like home ice for us.”

To do the damage they feel they’re capable of, the Wildcats will need to find the form they showed early in the year, when their stifling defense and relentless offense led to the kinds of impressive victories that have made them such an attractive PairWise team.

Since the halfway break, the players will admit that it’s been hard to regain that intensity and efficiency, and the team’s gradual dip in the standings showed it. But UNH showed life against the Friars, outplaying them even in the two losses, and the players said that progress will have to continue.

“We had that chip (on our shoulder) the first half, and then we kind of lost it,” senior forward John Henrion said. “In the playoffs, I thought we were playing like we were the first half, strong performances from everyone. Going back to making a statement, and that was the motto in the locker room. … We have a lot to prove, and we feel that if we get the chance, we’re going to make it count this time.”

No game, but no rest

The Wildcats didn’t join Boston College, Boston University, UMass-Lowell and Providence in the Hockey East semifinals, but they’re not being given a weekend off, either.

After allowing his players to recover from the Providence series early in the week, Umile had his players back on the ice Wednesday to start practices that will lead to an intra-squad scrimmage today.

If that sounds like a low-key exercise, think again. The goal is to simulate the game the Wildcats weren’t able to advance to, and the team might go as far as to bring in a referee to add to the competitive atmosphere.

“That’ll be our game, like being in Boston,” Umile said. “I think it’ll be fun in the sense that we’ll play a game, but the purpose of that will be to play a game-like pace. … We go at it pretty good.”

It’s a tactic that’s had results. Umile said the team did the same thing in 2010, after it was ousted by Vermont in the first round of the Hockey East tournament. The Wildcats made the national tournament and opened with a victory, beating top seed Miami of Ohio, 3-1.

Manchester memories

The opponent the Wildcats will presumably meet at the Verizon Wireless Arena is still to be determined, but it’s safe to bet that there will be some dramatics involved.

Both of UNH’s last trips to Manchester for the regionals, in 2009 and ’11, proved eventful for the hosts. The Wildcats won their openers both times, most recently overcoming their fourth seed for the aforementioned victory over No. 1 Miami of Ohio.

The more exciting game came two years before, when No. 3 UNH tied No. 2 North Dakota with 0.3 seconds left in regulation on Thomas Fortney’s goal and won, 6-5, on Peter LeBlanc’s goal 45 seconds into overtime.

“You can’t be any closer,” Umile said. “You can’t write that up in the script. It was crazy, it was awesome.

“And they can’t take those away. … You go through experiences like that, there’s no substitute for them. It never goes away, you live it forever and ever.”

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

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