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UNH hockey team shows resilience during 3-2 win over Maine

DURHAM – In the University of New Hampshire’s media availability Wednesday, before its series with nemesis Maine, Casey DeSmith and Eric Knodel were the players who walked into the room, sat down and answered questions.

The topic was injuries, namely to star defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and talented forward Grayson Downing, and DeSmith and Knodel were in charge of asserting confidence, stressing faith in the remaining players and insisting that, though bruised and battered, the Wildcats would be all right.

That was their message, and last night, in the Wildcats’ first full game tackling those challenges, they went to work backing it up.

Knodel had the game-winning goal and DeSmith made it stand up against a Maine barrage as UNH began its weekend series with a 3-2 win over the Black Bears at the Whittemore Center.

“This was a key win for us,” said Knodel, the team’s captain. “Just giving us confidence that we can win without them, that we can keep going as a team. They are key players for us, so not having them in the lineup, we’re going to miss them a lot. But this was key for us to get the confidence going.”

With van Riemsdyk out, defensive integrity was a major question mark for the Wildcats (14-12-1, 6-5) going in, and it was further stressed when the No. 20 Black Bears (11-9-3, 5-4-2) spent the first period (in which they outshot UNH 16-6) and much of the second period owning the puck and firing shots at the home team’s net. But the defensive corps, led by Knodel but also getting strong efforts from Brett Pesce and Justin Agosta, held firm, and DeSmith, who finished with 32 saves, stopped Maine on several prime chances to prevent it from taking control.

“He played great,” Coach Dick Umile said. “He made some key saves at key times, and he made those ‘win’ saves when we needed them.”

With DeSmith keeping the team in position to strike, Knodel fired the shot that gave the Wildcats control for good. Freshman forward Tyler Kelleher took the puck into the Maine zone and found Pesce, who was able to gather the rebound when his shot from the left side was blocked. He then found Knodel standing alone in the high slot, and the senior ripped a shot that sailed past goalie Martin Ouellette (24 saves) and put the Wildcats up 2-1 7:23 into the second period.

“I thought for most of the second period it was back and forth until that goal, and then we really put the pressure on them,” Knodel said. “Momentum was definitely on our side after that.”

The shot was surprisingly open for Knodel, as the Maine defenders stayed back near the goal instead of rushing up to cut off his angle.

“Knodel got a shot, we had a forward in the neighborhood who chose not to go down on one knee and get big low to block the shot,” Maine Coach Red Gendron said. “Those are the facts of the game. It’s all those little micro moments. You either do it or you don’t do it, and if you don’t do it and you lose, that’s why.”

Casey Thrush missed a chance to put Maine in a hole when his backhander hit the post later in the period, but the junior forward made up for it 2:22 into the third. UNH brought the puck down on a 3-on-2 break, with Thrush carrying the puck alongside Kelleher and Jay Camper. Thrush zipped a pass across the ice to Kelleher, who sent it back toward the net to Camper, and Camper stuffed it past Ouellette for a 3-1 lead.

The goal was Camper’s first of the season, and served as an appropriate reward after the junior had to step in and play center for Kyle Smith, who left the game with an apparent concussion.

“Jay stepped in for him and made a great play on a great goal,” Umile said. “You need guys to step up when people get injured, and Jay did a great job in that situation.”

Maine pulled the goalie with 1:25 to play, and the Black Bears had enough energy with the extra attacker to terrify the Wildcats and the 6,501 fans in the arena. Mark Anthoine closed the gap to 3-2 with 54.7 seconds left, but even though the puck stayed in the UNH zone for nearly all of the remaining time, the UNH defense kept it far enough away from the net and DeSmith to save the win.

The fast pace of the ending matched that of the beginning, when Nick Sorkin gave UNH its first 1-0 lead in seven tries 47 seconds in. The advantage didn’t last long, however, as Maine’s Will Merchant tied the game at 1 just 2:56 into the game.

Soon after the goal, the Black Bears’ offense took command of the game – though that, too, didn’t last.

“We definitely worked hard for that win,” Kelleher said. “To get a huge win like that without those two was pretty big for us, and our confidence.”

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

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