Wednesday, March 07, 2012

UNH Ready For Hockey East Playoffs

For the 24th consecutive year, the UNH Wildcats have qualified for the Hockey East Playoffs. Since the inaugural season of Hockey East in 1985, UNH has only missed the playoffs twice. Yet, as recently as the last weekend in January, UNH was in 9th place in Hockey East and in danger of missing the playoffs. Since then, UNH has won 5 games, lost 3 and tied 1. They are seeded #6 and will play a best-of-three quarterfinal series against #3 seed, Boston University beginning Friday night at 7:00 PM.

The last time UNH faced BU was a full three months ago on December 8th in Durham. BU's 2-1 victory came in a tight, evenly-matched game. UNH registered 29 shots on senior goalie Kieran Millan while BU generated 34 SOG. The game represented a turning point for UNH as freshman goalie Casey DeSmith made his first start in NCAA competition. More on UNH's development since early December later but first, a look at the tumultuous times at BU.

BU Shorthanded

Shortly after their win against UNH in early December, the BU Terriers experienced a string of early departures by key players. On December 14th, senior center Corey Trivino was dismissed from the team after being arrested and arraigned for an alleged sexual assault on a female student. At the time, Trivino was the leading goal scorer in Hockey East with 13 goals in 15 games. Two days later on December 16th, sophomore forward Charlie Coyle left BU to play for the Saint John Sea Dogs in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Coyle was the Hockey East Rookie of the Year last season and had scored 3 goals and 11 assists in 16 games this season. Finally, on February 21st, junior defenseman Max Nicastro was arraigned for alleged rape of a female student. BU announced that same day that Nicastro was no longer enrolled at the university. Up until that point, Nicastro had played in 26 games and had scored 3 goals and 6 assists.

The record shows that BU swept UNH this season winning 5-0 in the season opener on Oct. 8th at Agganis, 4-1 on Nov. 19th also at Agganis, and 2-1 on Dec. 8th in Durham. Trivino scored a goal in each of the three games, Coyle added 2 assists in the first game, and Nicastro scored a goal in the second game. Senior goalie Kieran Millan played a decisive role in all three victories. Millan stopped all 35 shots he faced in the first game, turned aside 33 out of 34 shots in the second game, and made 28 saves against 29 shots on Dec. 8th.

Changing of the Guard in UNH Net

As mentioned earlier, the last meeting with BU in early December marked the beginning of a major transition for UNH. Senior goalie Matt Di Girolamo had started in 16 out of the first 17 games of the 2011-12 season. Last season, Di Girolamo had the second best save percentage (.923) among Hockey East goalies and the third best goals against average (2.44). He was named a Hockey East Honorable Mention All-Star and was expected to be one of the top goalies in the nation again this season.

Di Girolamo played well from late October into early November when the team won 5 games and tied one. During that stretch, DiGi's goals against average was 2.00 and he shut out UMass-Lowell 5-0. However, he did not maintain the consistent play as the team lost the next 4 out of 5 games. After leading Harvard 4-0, DiGi and the team gave up 7 goals in a shocking loss.

Freshman Casey DeSmith was given his opportunity on Dec. 8th against BU and gave up only 2 goals. Following the three week holiday break, Di Girolamo got the start against Brown but was pulled at the end of the second period after giving up 3 goals. DeSmith replaced him in the third period and has been in the UNH goal ever since.

Unfamiliar Territory for UNH

UNH is not accustomed to playing the quarterfinal round of the Hockey East Playoffs outside of the friendly confines of the Whittemore Center (and Snively Arena prior to 1995). Over the 28 seasons of Hockey East, UNH has earned home-ice 20 times. The last time they played the quarterfinals on the road was in the 1995-96 season when they finished in 6th place. Since then, UNH has finished the regular season as the #1 Seed six times and #2 three other times.

Despite a subpar, Hockey East season in which they won 11 games, lost 14 and tied 2, UNH has steadily improved in several key phases of the game. The improvements began in goal around midseason and grew from there.


When Casey DeSmith committed to UNH in late October, 2010, he was the starting goalie for the Indiana Ice and among the leading netminders in the United States Hockey League. His goals against average was 1.86 per game and he had a save percentage of .943. In November, 2010, DeSmith (a native of Rochester, NH) was named to Team USA for the World Junior A Challenge. DeSmith did not play in the first four games of the tournament but in the Gold Medal game, he got his opportunity to perform under pressure. Early in the second period with Team USA trailing Team Canada 4-1, the starting goalie was pulled and DeSmith entered the game cold. Team USA went on to score 6 goals while DeSmith posted a shutout for the remainder of the game.

In the USHL playoffs last spring, DeSmith lead Indiana to a 2-game sweep in the opening round, posting a shutout in the opening game. In the quarterfinals, facing a do-or-die game against the Green Bay Gamblers, DeSmith made 39 saves in what was described as a "super-human effort" on the Indiana Ice website. The Ice lost in overtime 2-1 to Green Bay who eventually lost to Dubuque in the USHL Finals.

So, Casey DeSmith enrolled at UNH with a reputation for rising to the occasion in high-pressure games. Although UNH lost to BU 2-1 on Dec. 8th, Casey DeSmith played solidly in his first NCAA start making 32 saves.

Before DeSmith took over as the starting goalie, UNH's record in Hockey East was 4 wins, 6 losses and 1 tie. With DeSmith in goal, the record improved to 7 wins, 7 losses and 1 tie. More importantly, DeSmith was giving UNH an opportunity to win every game. 7 of the 8 loses were by a single goal and 4 of those were overtime loses.

Casey DeSmith has joined the ranks of the top goalies in Hockey East. His save percentage of .928 places him in a tie for the #1 rank in Hockey East. His goals against average of 2.29 is the 4th best in the league. He is essentially neck-and-neck with BU's senior goalie Kieran Millan (.927 Save%; 2.39 GAA). Nationwide, among all NCAA Division I teams, Casey DeSmith is ranked #7 in save percentage.

DeSmith has played some of his best games for UNH in must-win situations - like he did last year as a junior player in the USHL. When UNH fell to 9th place in Hockey East, they faced a home-and-home series against Providence in early February. UNH won the first game in Durham 3-1 and DeSmith made a total of 37 saves, including 14 saves in the final period. The following night in Providence, UNH held on to win 3-2 in overtime. Once again, DeSmith came up big when the game was on the line. In the third period, DeSmith made 14 saves and added 2 more in overtime.

Casey DeSmith's most impressive performance came two weeks ago at UMass-Amherst. Facing three away games to end the season, UNH needed to win one to clinch a spot in the Hockey East Playoffs. In the UMass game on Friday night, DeSmith faced a barrage of 51 shots on goal. UMass was desparate to win in order to keep their playoff hopes alive. DeSmith turned away 48 shots, including 25 in the second period as UNH won 4-3. DeSmith relied on all his strengths to pull out the victory. DeSmith stands tall in the crease leaving few gaps for shooters. His glove hand is lightning quick and he's adept at anticipating where the opponent's shots are coming from. In the final game of the season at Maine, DeSmith only allowed one goal and that came when a shot from the blueline was redirected by a UNH defenseman into the upper corner of the net. To beat DeSmith, a team needs to score fluke goals or to screen his view of shots. In scrums around the net, he is relentless.

Team Defense

Through the first half of the season, UNH did not play effective team defense. Take a look at the goals scored in the Oct. 8th and Nov. 15th BU games and the two goals scored by BU in DeSmith's first collegiate start on Dec. 8th (courtesy of free access to BU Hockey Highlights on and UNH highlights on These goals illustrate the common mistakes UNH was making in their defensive zone. Opposing forwards were getting loose behind the UNH net, free to make plays and set up goals. Opposing players were being left uncovered in front of and to the sides of the UNH net. Finally, UNH was allowing too many odd-man rushes into their zone.

Under the guidance of Associate Coach Jim Tortorella, in his first year at UNH, the team defense began improving around the time DeSmith became the starting goalie. The improvements became noticable in the weekend split against Merrimack College in mid-January. Since then, team defense has become a strength for UNH. When the puck is in their zone, the UNH center covers any opposing forward who goes behind the UNH net. The UNH forwards are hustling back to help the UNH defensemen when opponents rush into their zone. Opponents are being covered or pushed out of the area in front of DeSmith. Finally, UNH players are blocking shots and deflecting passes with their sticks.

Penalty Killing

This season, UNH has committed the fewest, by far, penalties in Hockey East. The UNH penalty kill units have faced only 82 power plays in 27 games. The team with the next fewest penalties is UMass-Lowell with 102. Boston University has been called for 536 penalty minutes, the most in Hockey East. UNH has the fewest penalty minutes with 287.

UNH has been very effective in killing off penalties. BU and UNH are essentially tied in penalty killing - both teams are successful at killing off about 85% of the power plays they face. The strategies that have worked for UNH are to attack the puck carrier and to aggressively deflect or intercept passes.

BU is tied with Maine for the most effective power play in Hockey East. They convert on 25% of their power play opportunities. It will be important for UNH to continue to minimize the penalties they commit and to kill off the ones that happen. In the final game of the regular season, UNH effectively killed off both of Maine's power plays.

Goal Scoring

The UNH team which enters the 2011-12 Hockey East Playoffs is different from the prototypical Wildcat team of the past. Its strength lies in goaltending and defense, not goal scoring.

The Table below shows the number of goals scored in Hockey East games by UNH players over the last two seasons. Overall, the 2010-11 UNH team that made it to the NCAA Regional Finals scored many more goals in Hockey East competition than the 2011-12 team. Last year's team scored 90 goals in 27 games while the current UNH team scored 68.

The pattern of scoring by various UNH players and by particular classes helps to account for the drop off in goals this season.

~ Last season, Seniors Phil DeSimone and Mike Sislo scored about the same number of goals as Mike Borisenok and Kevin McCarey this season.

~ The biggest discrepancy in scoring was between the leading scorers. Last season, Paul Thompson's 23 goals were the second highest in Hockey East. This season, Stevie Moses leads UNH in goal-scoring with 11 in Hockey East competition. Moses is tied for 6th in goals in Hockey East.

~ All three senior forwards increased their goal-scoring when compared with their totals as juniors.

~ The loss in goal-scoring attributed to three defensemen ending their UNH careers last season - Blake Kessel, Mike Beck and Matt Campanale - was compensated for by the three first-year defenseman this season. Trevor van Riemsdyk scored 3 goals, Eric Knodel scored 2, and Justin Agosta added 1.

~ Three junior forwards - Greg Burke, Austin Block, and Scott Pavelski - modestly increased their goal production this season.

~ Two junior forwards - John Henrion and Dalton Speelman - scored fewer goals this season than last season.

~ John Henrion's goal production fell from 7 to 3. In years past, one UNH junior typically emerges as a primary goal scorer (e.g., Stevie Moses in 2011; Paul Thompson in 2010; Matt Fornataro in 2007).

~ The loss of Dalton Speelman to a wrist injury in mid-November was costly. Up until then, he had scored 3 goals and was on track for at least equalling the 10 goals he scored last season.

~ Although Sophomores Nick Sorkin, Kevin Goumas, and Jeff Silengo have emerged as key players in UNH's offense, they did not increase their goal-scoring substantially over last season.

~ This season's freshman forwards - Grayson Downing, Casey Thrush, Jay Camper, and Matt Willows - essentially matched the goal production of last season's freshman forwards.


What Lies Ahead

The best-of-three series this weekend at the Agganis Arena will feature Hockey East's highest scoring offensive team - BU - against one of the best defensive teams - UNH. Given their season long record, BU is almost certain to qualify for the NCAA Tournament regardless of how they play in the Hockey East Playoffs. UNH, on the other hand, needs to win the Hockey East Championship to continue their 10-year run in the NCAA Tournament.

So far, BU has handled the early departure of three key players well. Since the first departure on December 14th, BU has won 10 Hockey East games and lost 5. Since early January, UNH has played some of their best hockey of the season. Both goaltenders - Kieran Millan and Casey DeSmith - have demonstrated they can make the routine saves and the occasional spectacular saves.

Given UNH's lower goal production this season, they will probably need to prevent BU from scoring more than 1 or 2 goals per game. At the same time, UNH players with the highest capacity to score goals will need to step up. Should be an exciting matchup.


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