UNH hockey: Wildcats kick off crucial second half of Hockey East play against Maine

Last modified: 1/28/2014 1:24:56 AM
DURHAM – The University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team is done with nearly three quarters of its season, but right in the center of its Hockey East schedule. The Wildcats have played 10 conference games. Ten games remain.

And while they spent the first half of the slate catching up after a slow start, the Wildcats – wounded as they are – are looking to spend the second half surging toward the postseason.

“We’ve been looking forward to getting back into Hockey East play,” junior goalie Casey DeSmith said. “At this point in the year, this is crunch time.”

UNH (13-12-1, 5-5-0) will play its first Hockey East games since Dec. 7 tonight and tomorrow against No. 20 Maine, and while the team has had opportunities to score PairWise rankings points since, the remaining stretch will be what makes or breaks the Wildcats’ season. It’s all Hockey East from here on out, starting with the Black Bears and continuing with two games apiece against Notre Dame, Vermont, Boston University and Merrimack.

“Hockey East games are definitely the most fun games to play in, due to the rivalries,” senior defenseman and captain Eric Knodel said. “Getting into the Hockey East games is going to be good for our team, because we can see in the standings where we are right now, and we’re right on the line for the top half of the league.”

The top half of the league is the top five teams, which represents the safe ground for UNH, currently sixth in the conference, to shoot for. The addition of Notre Dame forced Hockey East to reconfigure its postseason, allowing for all 11 teams to qualify after previously only the top eight of 10 made the cut. It sounds like a more generous system, but there’s danger in the lower seeds; spots 6 through 11 play one-game playoffs, while the top five teams get a bye through that process and play the three teams that make it out of the first round.

One-game playoffs leave a team’s fate up to whatever strange breaks or bounces happen in those 60 minutes, and it’s a situation the Wildcats – who are one point behind UMass-Lowell for fifth and two behind Maine for fourth – want no part of.

“It’s going to be that close between teams 6 through 11, and you’re talking about one game, one hot goaltender,” Coach Dick Umile said. “I don’t want to be in that. I’d prefer not to be in that.”

UNH has room to move about in Hockey East. The top spot appears to have been salted away by Boston College, the No. 2 team in the country that has a six-point advantage over second-place Northeastern, but the rest of the conference is attainable. The Wildcats have two games in hand and only five points separating them from the Huskies, but they’re also just one bad weekend from sinking deeper into that 6-11 range.

The volatile middle of the standings means UNH doesn’t have much room for error as it starts what it hopes is a season-ending climb against its arch rival. The Black Bears’ 11-8-3 record (and 5-3-2 Hockey East mark) marks a turnaround from last year’s 11-19-8 overall record, and also restores some vigor to a showdown that was tamed somewhat last year by both teams being at opposite ends of the standings.

“This is the weekend you circle at the beginning of the year,” Knodel said. “Everyone loves Maine weekend. I think everyone’s in a good mindset this weekend, ready for a war.”

The series with Maine leads into a favorable closing stretch for the Wildcats, as each of their remaining opponents is below it in the conference standings. Any hope of this being an easy jaunt to the finish line was dashed Saturday, however, when star defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk broke his ankle and second-line center Grayson Downing sprained his shoulder in a 3-1 loss to Union.

Downing is out three to four weeks and van Riemsdyk is out approximately six weeks, putting his return around when the postseason begins, so if the Wildcats are going to avoid the pitfalls of the single-game round, they’re going to have to do it at far less than full health.

“Everything gets changed, especially with two key guys on your power plays (hurt),” said Umile, who added that he hadn’t yet settled on restructured lines. “The guys responded and did a good job (Saturday). … Now we’ve got to it on a regular basis for a while.”

But just for a while. Getting to the postseason without van Riemsdyk and getting most of the way there without Downing will be a challenge, but the Wildcats have the optimism that they’ll be at full strength once the elimination games get started.

“It’s definitely promising to see, if we can keep it going, that they’re going to be back for playoffs, which is perfect timing,” Knodel said. “(That) as long as our team is able to hold it together and get some good games going, they could still come back.”

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

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