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’Cats ooze confidence heading into first round of NCAA hockey tourney

MANCHESTER – Dick Umile isn’t one to boast about his team, but the coach of the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team isn’t about to sell his squad short, either. The Wildcats play their first win-or-go-home game tonight in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and Umile likes his team’s chances of being the one out of 16 that finishes the season on a winning streak.

“Maybe we’re flying under the radar here, or however,” he said, “but the fact of the matter here is they’re a team that is capable of winning this. As far as I’m concerned, it’s wide open.”

UNH (19-11-7), the second seed in the Northeast Regional, gets its first test tonight against No. 3 Denver (20-13-5) at 8 p.m. at the Verizon Wireless Arena. It’s a rematch of a November game that the Wildcats won, 6-4, a game that resulted in different reactions from the two sides.

For UNH, that game was about mental fortitude, as the visiting Wildcats fell behind 3-0 and 4-2 before responding with four third-period goals against the then-No. 2 team in the country.

“It was pretty nuts,” senior forward Austin Block said. “It proved that we could come back from a deficit and showed our true character. … It was a true test of character for us and it’s going to be a good matchup.”

For Denver, it wasn’t a UNH victory as much as a Pioneers loss, and the team has viewed tonight’s game as a picture-perfect situation for redemption.

“We really feel that we gave one away,” senior forward Chris Knowlton said. “We weren’t playing our best hockey at the time and we’re a different team now and I feel we have a good chance (tonight).”

The key for UNH will come down to a goalie making his first tournament appearance. Sophomore Casey DeSmith put together a fine season, finishing with a 2.24 goals against average, .924 save percentage and five shutouts (second best in the country), and the team in front of him expects him to be at his best when the Wildcats take the ice.

“People say defense wins championships and it all starts with goaltenders,” senior defenseman and captain Connor Hardowa said. “If you look back before in previous years, goalies have almost won people national championships. Make a few saves here and there, that’s huge for a team.”

The bad news for the Wildcats is that the Pioneers, a team with one of the country’s deepest offenses, were one of the teams that gave DeSmith fits. He didn’t make it out of the first period, allowing three goals on eight shots before giving way to Jeff Wyer after just 9:05 of ice time. The sophomore has shown a habit for improving in rematches, however, and he said he’s looking forward to the opportunity to do it again.

“That was a tough game in Denver, and I’m pretty excited that I’ll be able to play them again,” DeSmith said. “We’ll see some things differently, knowing that we have faced them before. … It’ll definitely be exciting for me to have another shot at them.”

Umile said he’s confident Denver will see both a different goalie and a different defense than the one it saw in November.

“Casey always bounced back, he’s a competitor,” he said. “I think he has a good (defensive) corps in front of him and Casey is very capable of covering up their mistakes. Between Casey and the defensive group, we feel confident.”

That’s not to say Umile and his players hope to win 1-0. The Pioneers bring to Manchester an offense short on stars but big on production, as they ranked third in the nation in scoring despite having no players in the country’s top 50 in points. Instead, they have six players with more than 10 goals, led by Shawn Ostrow (15), Nick Shore (14) and Knowlton (13).

It’s a team with depth throughout the lines, but Hardowa said the key to slowing a team like that is not straying from what works in the first place.

“More or less, just play our game,” he said. “We don’t want to get too caught up trying to stop another team. We want them to be worried about stopping us.”

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

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