Sunday, January 22, 2012

UNH Splits With 6th-Ranked Merrimack

DURHAM, NH - As sophomore forward Nick Sorkin said in the post-game news conference, UNH has figured out how to play effective team defense. Merrimack College entered the weekend series with UNH ranked 6th in the nation. In a 2-1 win on Friday and 2-3 overtime loss tonight, UNH held the Warriors to 25 and 26 shots on goal respectively. That's 5-6 fewer shots on goal than Merrimack has averaged this season.

In the last four games, beginning with Providence College on Jan. 11th, UNH has only allowed a total of 5 goals. How are they doing it? A big reason is stick work in their defensive zone. Tonight, in particular, it was remarkable how many shots were blocked with sticks and how often a UNH defenseman or forward quickly corraled a loose puck and cleared it away from the scoring zone.

Another noticable improvement is the number of odd-man rushes UNH is allowing into their zone. There are no stats for this but Merrimack managed very few tonight. Even when Merrimack attempted their familiar stategy of positioning a forward up near the UNH blueline to wait for a homerun pass out of their own zone, UNH defenders were all over it. On one play in the third period, a Merrimack forward hanging out between the red line and the UNH blueline received a long pass but freshman Trevor van Riemsdyk was right there to poke check the puck away.

UNH is also playing smart, strategic defense. With less than a minute left in Friday's game, Merrimack called timeout just before a faceoff in the UNH end. Merrimack pulled Cannata for the extra attacker and drew up a play. At the same time, the UNH unit had gathered around Associate Coach Jim Tortorella and he diagrammed how he wanted UNH to defend against what Merrimack was likely to do off the faceoff. When the puck was dropped, UNH effectively neutralized Merrimack's play.

Both Nick Sorkin and junior defenseman Connor Hardowa (pictured above) deserve The UNH Men's Hockey Blog's #1 Star for their combined play in the two Merrimack games. Sorkin had an assist on the game-winning goal Friday and 2 assists and 4 SOG tonight. Hardowa scored an assist last night and scored the game-tying goal with about 11 minutes left in regulation tonight. On that powerplay goal, Sorkin and Hardowa combined on one of the prettiest goals of the season. Sorkin was positioned in the faceoff circle to the left of Merrimack goalie Joe Cannata and he saw Hardowa skating toward the net on the opposite side of the ice. Sorkin threaded the needle through the congestion in front of Cannata and Hardowa blasted a one-timer. The shot was particularly impressive because Hardowa is a right-handed shot and had to reach back to shoot the puck past the right side of Cannata.

Of course, freshman goalie Casey DeSmith deserves more than honorable mention for his back-to-back starts against Merrimack. Most of the time, DeSmith is directing rebounds into the corners and his glove work has been impressive. On two different occasions in the game tonight, he stopped a flurry of Merrimack activity by reaching up over his head to snag a floating, elevated puck.

DeSmith has started 6 games so far this season which are not enough to include him on the official Hockey East goalie rankings. However, DeSmith's 2.00 goals against average would put him in 2nd place behind UMass-Lowell goalie Doug Carr. DeSmith's save percentage of .927 would place him in 3rd just behind Merrimack standout goalie Joe Cannata.

With the two points UNH earned on Friday night, they now have 13 points in Hockey East games and are in 8th place. UMass-Amherst is one point ahead of UNH and Providence College is two points ahead. UNH has two more games with both of these teams. As UNH demonstrated this weekend, they can compete with a top team in Hockey East and the nation. Next weekend will provide another such opportunity as UNH plays a home-and-home series against Boston College.


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