Monday, February 13, 2012

Wildcat Wrapup: UNH Beats Northeastern; Ties Merrimack

The last time UNH failed to qualify for the Hockey East Playoffs, Ronald Reagan was President, smoking on domestic flights under two hours had just been banned, and Denis Potvin retired from the New York Islanders. It was March, 1988. If the regular season had ended two weekends ago, UNH would have missed the Hockey East Playoffs for the first time in 24 years. They had just lost their third game in a row; a 3-2 overtime decision to Boston College at the Whittemore Center.

Despite the historically dire situation UNH faced just two Sundays ago, they were playing some of their best hockey of the season. UNH's team defense had improved dramatically, players other than Stevie Moses were scoring goals, and freshman Casey DeSmith was emerging as a top college goalie. Since then, UNH has played 4 "must-win" games - two against Providence College last weekend, a home-game against Northeastern University Friday night, and an away-game against nationally-ranked Merrimack College last night. On the strength of 3 wins and an overtime tie, the Wildcats have clawed their way back from the edge of the cliff. Prospects for making the Hockey East playoffs are brighter and the chance of earning home-ice is now mathematically possible (though remote).

In the battle for the 8th and final playoff spot, UNH (20 points) now has a 4 point lead over Northeastern and UMass-Amherst. Both have played one less Hockey East game than UNH. UNH's 3-2 victory over Northeastern in their final matchup of the regular season created some breathing room for the Wildcats. Over the remaining three weekends of the season, Northeastern will play 2 games against Providence (at home), 2 against Maine (at home), and a home-and-home series against Boston University. Those three teams are all in a tight race for home-ice in the Hockey East playoffs.

The 3 points that UNH earned this weekend also improved their lead over UMass-Amherst. On Friday, UMass upset Boston University, the #1-ranked team in the country, by a score of 3-2 at the Agganis Arena. Last night, Massachusetts lost 4-5 to Providence at the Mullins Center. Like Northeastern, the remaining schedule for UMass is tough with 2 games at Maine, 2 games with UNH (at home), and a home-and-home series against Merrimack.

In recent interviews with the press and TV announcers, UNH players and coaches have emphasized a common theme - "play each game like it's a playoff game". Expect the same attitude and approach from UNH over the final 5 games of the regular season. Next weekend, UNH plays their final 2 home games of the season against Vermont. Saturday night at the Whittemore Center will feature the annual Senior Night Ceremony. During the last weekend in February, UNH plays two games at UMass-Amherst. Those games may give UNH an opportunity to eliminate UMass from post season play and lock up a playoff spot for themselves. UNH will play its final regular season game on Saturday, March 3rd at Maine. The game may be on NESN.

Weekend Highlights and Notes

~ Casey DeSmith, the freshman from Rochester, NH, is a top goalie in Hockey East. Such a statement would have been unimaginable to most fans when the season began and DeSmith was the 3rd or 4th-string goalie for UNH (although "The UNH Men's Hockey Blogger Guy" called it). After a 24-save performance against Northeastern on Friday night followed by 34 saves against Merrimack last night, Casey DeSmith sits near the top of the Hockey East goalie rankings. His 2.14 Goals Against Average in Hockey East competition places DeSmith in 2nd place. DeSmith is ranked #3 in save percentage with an impressive .931%.

The stats alone don't fully convey how well Casey DeSmith is playing. Watching him closely at the Whittemore Center on Friday and on NESN last night, one could see outstanding technique and confidence. DeSmith anticipates where the shots are coming from and repositions himself accordingly. He seems to glide from side-to-side in the crease and only leaves his skates to go down on the ice when necessary. On the one goal Merrimack scored last night, DeSmith was on the ice out of position but he had been inadvertantly knocked over by Brett Kostolansky.

DeSmith made numerous glove saves both nights usually while in a strong position. He's standing with his knees together in a partial butterfly and he flashes his glove like an MVP first baseman. DeSmith's glovework was critical in the first period against Northeastern on Friday Night. After playing poorly against BC in the first round of the Beanpot Tournament, NU came out flying and outshot UNH 12-8.

On multiple occasions in both games, DeSmith softly absorbed slapshots and point-blank wrist shots to his midsection without leaving a rebound. When he does go down to the ice in a full butterfly position, he can flash his pads with the best of them. Midway through the 3rd period last night, a Merrimack forward skated from behind the net and made a great wraparound shot but DeSmith denied him flashing his left pad at the last possible instant.

~ The Grayson Downing-Greg Burke-John Henrion has emerged as a top line for UNH - possibly the top line. In both the Northeastern and Merrimack games, Coach Umile sent them out on the first line to play against the opponent's top forward line. The diverse talents of Henrion, Burke and Downing have blended effectively since they were reunited back in the weekend series with Boston College. Henrion is allowing his linemates to set him up for higher percentage shots. Against Northeastern, I counted 3 times when Henrion's shots hit the post. As a center, Greg Burke is winning a bunch of faceoffs. On the only goal last night against Merrimack, Burke set the play in motion by winning the faceoff back to Trevor van Riemsdyk who sent a shot toward the net. The puck bounced to Grayson Downing in the slot between the circles and he made an amazing maneuver to get a shot away. Reaching to his left and slightly behind him, Downing dragged the puck past a defender and lifted a wrister past Merrimack goalie Joe Cannata.

~ Junior Austin Block along with freshmen Casey Thrush and Matt Willows on his wings played with high energy and generated a lot of offense in both weekend games. Block scored 2 goals against Northeastern and had 3 shots on goal in each game. During the mid-week press conference, Austin Block described Coach Umile as a "hard-nosed coach" who verbally got on his case a few weeks ago. This apparently motivated Block to pick up his game and effort. Casey Thrush scored his 8th assist of the season against Northeastern and he had a combined 3 SOG. It's hard to believe that Matt Willows has yet to score in his first NCAA season. Willows had 2 SOG against Northeastern and 3 SOG against Merrimack. He's fast, physical and his shots almost always force the goalie to make a save.

~ On several shifts in the Northeastern game, freshman defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk was on the ice to defend against top scorers Vinny Saponari and Braden Primm. In one sequence in the UNH zone, Saponari skated past TvR but he recovered to poke check the puck away from Saponari. Early in the 3rd period, TvR forced a flying Primm to the half-boards and poked the puck away from him. TvR finished the game with a +/- rating of 0. As an offensive defenseman, TvR's defensive game has steadily improved this season.

Injury Update:

~ Jeff Silengo, who has been battling a shoulder injury, looked like he is regaining his speed and confidence on the ice. Against Merrimack, Silengo had 2 SOG and his linemates Kevin McCarey and Mike Borisenok had 3 and 2 SOG, respectively.

~ Dalton Speelman, who fell hard into the end boards and was injured in the 11th game of the season against UMass-Lowell, is recovering on schedule. He has been able to skate over the last few weeks but probably will not return to the lineup this season. The possibility of Speelman being "red-shirted" this season and being able to play two more seasons with UNH is under consideration.

Game Photos Courtesy of Walter Rossini.


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