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UNH draws familiar foe in NCAA Regional

DURHAM – When the last traces of speculation officially faded and the ESPN graphic showing the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team’s NCAA tournament matchup with Denver appeared, there was a small cheer from the group of players seated around the television.

And that was it. No fist pumps. No high fives. No thank-goodness-we-have-one-more-game hugs.

As Coach Dick Umile said, the announcement merely said what they suspected all along – right down to the opponent.

“There’s not much mystery anymore with the selection (process),” Umile said. “You can (do) bracketology and I think everybody’s got it figured out. … I think we all felt that we were going to be playing Denver, and the good thing is we know somewhat about them.”

Though the national bid came as no surprise, it was particularly sweet considering UNH’s absence in the tournament a year ago, its first time out of the national picture since 2001.

“Obviously last year was frustrating; it’s a great feeling to get back in the tournament,” senior defenseman and alternate captain Brett Kostolansky said. “We know what it takes to get there now, and what it takes to win there.”

UNH, the 10th-ranked team nationally, benefitted from a draw heavy in familiarity. Joining the Wildcats in Manchester for the Northeast Regional portion of the NCAA tournament is No. 1 seed and Hockey East rival UMass Lowell, No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 3 Denver, who hosted UNH back in November.

It’s also a draw that should inspire confidence in the Wildcats, who went 4-0 against the other three seeds, with one of those wins being a wild, come-from-behind 6-4 win over the same Pioneers team they’ll face Friday at 8 p.m.

Even with the previous matchup in the books, Umile and his players stressed that a lot has changed in the four months since – but senior defenseman and captain Connor Hardowa acknowledged that a little spite can remain among the Denver players.

“With the history we’ve had with them this year, they’ll obviously be looking for some revenge,” he said. “It’ll be fun. It’ll be a good team, it’ll be a good test. It should be a good game, no matter who we’re playing.”

There was plenty of drama when the teams last met at Denver’s Magness Arena, as UNH fell down 3-0 and 4-2 before scoring four third-period goals to steal the win.

According to Umile, that game played a big role in the team getting to where it is now.

“It was probably one of the high moments of our season,” he said. “It was one of the great comebacks we had over the season, and I think that’s where the team really developed its character, the never-quit attitude that the team had.”

Grayson Downing and Kevin Goumas notched hat tricks in the comeback, and Goumas, the team’s leading scorer, said he expects to get a little more attention from the Pioneers this time around.

“I think they have a sense of who I am now,” he said. “Hopefully (the performance) can carry over into the tournament. … I haven’t scored in about two and a half months. Hopefully we can change that this week.”

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

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