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UNH hockey: Wildcats expect usual tight tilt in RiverStone matchup with Dartmouth

DURHAM – It’s another non-conference game, one of seven the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team has to start the second half of the season, and it’s coming against a team as down on its luck as any the Wildcats can hope to face between now and March.

But that doesn’t mean UNH is brushing off its 13th RiverStone Cup matchup with Dartmouth today. Not considering the natural rivalry the state’s only two Division I hockey teams have with each other. And not considering what happened the last time the Wildcats faced the Big Green as the supposed bigger, badder team.

“Obviously, they kicked our butt last year up in Hanover,” Coach Dick Umile said, referring to Dartmouth’s 4-1 win over the then-No. 2 Wildcats last December. “We’ve had some good games with them. … We can forget schedules, or records, I should say.”

For the sake of sidestepping a letdown today, that would be a wise move for the 20th-ranked Wildcats. The Big Green is in the midst of one of Division I’s most dreadful seasons, with a 3-11-2 record (and 2-8 conference mark) pinning it near the bottom of the ECAC. Still, there is a wild card element to Dartmouth, due partly to a rejuvenated defense that has helped the team go 3-3-2 in its last eight games, and to a history between the two teams that has seen one wild, back-and-forth game after another.

“We’ve had some crazy games with them at the Verizon (Wireless Arena). Some unbelievable games,” Umile said. “Crazy scoring games, whether it was (9-8, in 2005), we’ve got games that turned around in two or three minutes. Anything goes over there, and we’ve done it all.”

After allowing five or more goals five times in its first seven games, Dartmouth has tightened its play in its own zone and in net. Excluding an 8-8 anomaly with Northeastern, the Big Green has allowed three goals or fewer in each game since, prompting UNH junior center and leading scorer Kevin Goumas to expect a challenge in Manchester today.

“That’s their record, but that doesn’t matter,” he said. “They’re a pretty solid team. … It’s always a tough game. It’s not going to be easy.”

In addition to claiming the annual bragging rights over their intrastate rivals, the Wildcats will also have the chance to take another step in marching back up the polls and Hockey East standings after a potentially crippling start to the season. UNH (12-10-1, 5-5) has weathered the storm of a 1-5-1 start to the season to make it up to fourth in the conference, and with three straight wins, it has some momentum heading into today’s game and the rest of a home-heavy second half of the season.

“If you look back to last year, our first half was really strong, so if we could duplicate that, we’ll be in the same position as last year, hopefully,” senior defenseman Justin Agosta said. “In the second half we had a .500 record, so if it swapped and we could go into the tournament with that kind of the momentum we had in the first half (in ’12-13), that would be more ideal than last year.”

Turning on the power

It wasn’t difficult to find a culprit for UNH’s struggles during its off-and-on first half. Trouble scoring dogged the Wildcats throughout much of the first half, and the well was especially dry in matchups with current top-20 teams, against whom UNH surpassed three goals only once in 11 tries.

The Wildcats have scored 14 goals during their three-game winning streak, and have gotten a spark on special teams in the process. A lifeless power play corps has started clicking, resulting in two goals with the man advantage in each of the victories, and Umile pointed to quality chances, rather than goals, as a sign that the unit has turned a corner.

“The power play is moving the puck very well,” Umile said. “You’ve got to look at the scoring opportunities you get. Some nights you might not score, but you’re getting good looks, good shots.”

Matt Willows and Eric Knodel have combined for four of the six goals in that stretch, and linemate Goumas said that getting those results have boosted confidence after the Wildcats went 1-for-20 on the power play over the previous five games.

“Any time we go into the power play, we feel like we have a pretty good chance,” he said. “If things aren’t going right, I think we know that if we get another chance, we’ll be okay.”

New faces

The scoresheets the past few games have seen points going to some new names. A pair of freshmen scored their first career points during the weekend sweep over Nebraska-Omaha, as forward Collin Bourque had assists in both wins over the Mavericks and defenseman Dylan Maller notched an assist in the first victory.

Bourque made his debut Nov. 2 against UMass-Lowell and has played five games this season. He’s played in four of the team’s last five games as a fill-in for the injured Jeff Silengo, and provides an infusion of speed when he steps on the ice.

“He’s a little guy, he’s quick, he handles the puck pretty well. He sees the ice pretty well for a freshman,” Umile said. “He’s one of the quick ones. He and Ja mie Hill are probably two of the fastest guys on our team. He can go.”

Maller sat out the first half of the season after losing a brother to cancer, but returned to school just before the break and has played in each of the past three games on the third line with Agosta.

“He’s done a good job. He’s stepped in there and played well,” Umile said. “He’s doing a solid job for us.”

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

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