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UNH hockey: Pesce’s play in increased role a godsend for Wildcats

When the University of New Hampshire hockey team lost Trevor van Riemsdyk for the rest of the regular season, it had the feel of a cripping blow to a team that already needed strokes of fortune to salvage a postseason for itself.

The Wildcats were losing when they needed to win, were seeing their PairWise and Hockey East hopes wilting, and then had to persevere through it all without their strongest asset, a player Coach Dick Umile called possibly the country’s best defenseman.

Now, with two weeks to go in the regular season, the Wildcats are back in the polls at No. 20, they’re in line for a Hockey East bye and national tournament berth, and with three wins in their last four games, they’re playing the kind of hot hockey these cold months demand.

They’ve been able to do it without their superstar – thanks largely to the other highly-touted blueliner who’s had to step up in his place.

The Wildcats’ recent hot stretch has seen the best play of the season from Brett Pesce, a sophomore who’s been slotted into the top defensive pairing alongside captain Eric Knodel in van Riemsdyk’s absence. Pesce is a highly talented player himself – he was the Carolina Hurricanes’ third-round pick in the 2013 NHL entry draft following his freshman season – but he was playing a quiet role with UNH, serving as Justin Agosta’s partner on the second line while the Knodel-van Riemsdyk tandem got the lion’s share of the shifts, both even strength and on the power play.

But a hole opened up Jan. 18 when van Riemsdyk was helped off the Whittemore Center ice, and Pesce has upped his game to help patch it. He’s filled in on the power play in addition to playing on the front line, and with a plus-2 rating in the four games since, he’s brought valuable stability to a shorthanded unit.

“He was great (Maine) weekend … and he was huge out there tonight,” Umile said after the Friday win over Notre Dame. “We played him a lot of minutes.”

Umile kept going with the superlatives, even saying that Pesce looked like van Riemsdyk on the ice. The stats back him up: Pesce’s scored twice and added four assists in those four games, after scoring only one goal in the 26 games before.

Pesce downplayed the recent points flurry, saying it’s just been a product of ice time rather than a change in approach, and his coach agreed. Offensive involvement is nice, but with the defensive corps stretched as it is, keeping things simple is the way to go.

“We don’t want him rushing … right now, we can’t afford to have our defense (active in the offense),” Umile said. “If it creates itself we’ll let him go, but don’t worry about getting into rushes.”

Still, with points in four straight games, it’s clear to see that Pesce’s game has flourished at the time his team needed it most – and without question, the Wildcats are responding.

“It’s about getting the puck up with that first pass and playing that great defense. And that’s what he’s doing,” Umile said. “He’s controlling the boards in the defensive zone and finding ways to beat the forechecker physically and then make the pass, get it out of the zone. … He’s picking up his role.”

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

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