Done in by River Hawks defense
New Hampshire hockey coach Dick Umile watches with his team during the final seconds of the Northeast regional final hockey game Saturday, March 30, 2013 in Manchester, N.H. UMass-Lowell beat New Hampshire 2-0. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
UMass-Lowell goaltender Connor Hellebuyck watches as New Hampshire's Austin Block chases after the puck in a scoreless first period of the Northeast regional final of the NCAA college hockey tournament, Saturday, March 30, 2013, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
MANCHESTER – The scene at the end of last night’s Northeast Regional is one that’s become all too familiar for the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team.
Heads go down and hands rest on knees as soon as the buzzer sounds, with hugs and handshakes soon part of the solace. Meanwhile, at the other end of the ice, the opponent excitedly huddles around its goalie, littering the ice with equipment and pulling on commemorative caps. Then eventually the Wildcats wait begrudgingly near the blue line while awards are presented and the enemy officially receives its ticket to the Frozen Four.
That’s now been the final scene following each of UNH’s last four trips to the NCAA Tournament, after last night’s 2-0 loss to UMass Lowell in the Northeast Regional final. But the familiarity of the experience isn’t limited only to after those losses.
It’s now been a decade since the Wildcats’ last appearance in the national semifinals, despite qualifying for the tournament in nine of the past 10 seasons, and there’s a common thread that runs throughout those defeats.
Putting it plainly, UNH has consistently run into some of the best defensive teams in the country when its season was on the line. Including the River Hawks, who entered Verizon Wireless Arena last night as the fourth-stingiest club in Division I this season, the Wildcats have now been eliminated by a team with a defense ranked among the nation’s top five.
Overall it’s happened six times in the nine seasons since New Hampshire’s last regional championship, and on average the nine teams that have eliminated UNH over that span have held a ranking of 10.1. (By comparison, UNH’s average defensive rank is 21.7.)
In a single-elimination event, in a sport where merely a hot goalie can be a decisive advantage, a team that has consistently proven its defensive excellence over a six-month campaign would figure to be a dangerous foe.
And the Wildcats can speak to that as well as anyone.
“Apparently they’re really dangerous, because we couldn’t score on them,” UNH forward Austin Block said. “I usually don’t care to look at the rankings because I don’t think that helps you out, but they’re obviously a good defensive team. (It’s) whoever gets the lucky bounces, or gets a quick break – and that’s pretty much what happened.”
“That’s what it comes down to in these types of games,” fellow winger John Henrion added. “One-goal games. It’s a battle of the goaltenders, sometimes.”
Since 1983, UNH is 19-1 in the national tourney when scoring at least three goals, and the ’Cats have hit for that many in each of their five NCAA victories since 2004. However, after being shut out last night, they’ve managed to score a grand total of 11 goals over the course of the nine games that have resulted in their elimination – an average of just 1.2 per tilt.
Over that span, New Hampshire’s average team has boasted the nation’s 10th-best offense. But the adage says that defense wins championships.
And apparently that includes regional championships, too.
“They stick to what they’re good at,” Block said of Lowell, which has now allowed a total of five goals in its six playoff games. “They shut us down.”
’Cats forced to shuffle
After each was injured in Friday night’s win over Denver, UNH’s two highest-scoring forwards were out of the lineup last night, causing Coach Dick Umile to shuffle his lines in such a way that only three forwards were slotted in the same position they’d been a game prior.
Kevin Goumas (42 points) and Grayson Downing (31 points) were replaced in the lineup by Jay Camper (six points) and Collin MacDonald (two points), with Nick Sorkin sliding from wing on the fourth line to center on the first. Dalton Speelman and Block flanked him, while Camper centered Dan Correale and Matt Willows on the third line, and MacDonald took the ice with Scott Pavelski and Maxim Gaudreault.
Friday’s third line of Casey Thrush-Jeff Silengo-Henrion stayed together, but were employed as the second trio yesterday. The Wildcats’ defensive pairings went unchanged.
With its loss, UNH’s senior class became the school’s first to lose three times in the national quarterfinal. However, they are the only group of players that’ll graduate from Hockey East this year to win an NCAA game in three of their four seasons.
Not that that was much consolation for Henrion and company.
“They all hurt. They all hurt bad,” he said. “Especially if you’re a senior, but I know some of the younger guys are hurting, too, because it’s their first experience. They were just as hungry as we were. We’ve got a lot of strength in the locker room, still. I’m sure they’ll want to get back here next year.”
∎ Since 2003, the only year in which UNH was beaten in the NCAA Tournament by a team that had neither a top-10 defense nor a top-10 offense was 2007, against Miami. Notre Dame ranked 24th defensively in 2011, and Denver was 18th in 2005, but those teams were 10th and second, respectively, in scoring.
∎ UNH’s Henrion and Trevor van Riemsdyk joined Lowell’s Adam Chapie, Chad Ruhwedel, Scott Wilson and Connor Hellebuyck on the all-tournament team. As he was in the Hockey East championship, Hellebuyck was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
∎ When Chapie tacked on the insurance tally late in yesterday’s third period, he became the first River Hawk to score twice in the regional. The first seven strikes came from seven players – and Chapie’s contribution to Friday’s 6-1 victory was scored into an empty net.
∎ With two area teams waging battle, the crowd at Verizon Wireless Arena was just about split evenly between Wildcat and River Hawk fans, and Block said it was the best atmosphere in which he’s ever played. Attendance was slightly higher than Friday, thanks in part to significant walk-up sales, and was announced at 8,357.
∎ UNH is now 3-5 all-time as hosts in Manchester.