Friday, February 15, 2013

Is UNH Ready for the Stretch Run?

UNH vs PC: Faceoff in Series Finale (Photo: Mike Lowry)

In today's Foster's Daily Democrat, Coach Umile and goalie Casey DeSmith commented on the team's performance in the 1-0 loss to Providence College on Wednesday night (see "#5 UNH Loses Season Series to Providence") and their prospects over the remaining 7 games of the regular season. Umile expressed satisfaction with how hard the team is playing but acknowledged the need to score more goals. DeSmith noted the team is playing well defensively. Both stressed the importance of winning most of the remaining games.

Six teams, including UNH, are battling for home-ice advantage in the HE Quarterfinal Playoff Series which is granted to the top four teams at the end of the regular season. UNH, currently 5th in the PairWise National Rankings, is also in the hunt for a bid in the NCAA Championship Playoffs in late March. So, a great deal is at stake in the remaining away games against Boston College (1 game) and Vermont (2 games) and the final four home games against UMass (2) and Maine (2).

Only 7 points separate the top 6 teams in Hockey East. UNH (24 points) is tied for 2nd place with Merrimack and trails league-leading BC by one point. Both Merrimack and BC have played one less game than UNH. Third-place Providence (23 pts.) trails UNH by only one point, BU (21) is in 4th-place and UMass-Lowell (18) is in 5th-place. Both BU and Lowell have 2 games in hand over UNH and Providence.

Six of the 7 remaining games for UNH are against teams with little chance of finishing the season in the top 4. Other than the game against BC this Sunday, UNH will have no opportunities to directly gain ground on the other 5, top contending teams. To finish in the top 4, UNH must win most of their remaining games. If they do, then their final position in the standings will depend on how the other contending teams perform.

Attempting to predict how UNH will fare down the home stretch is a fool's errand. Over the first 15 games of the season, the Wildcats only lost 2 games and were ranked #1 in the nation during the first week of December. However, over the last 13 games, beginning with the loss to Boston University on Dec. 8th, UNH has been a below .500 team losing 7, winning 5, and tying 1.

If UNH plays the rest of the season the way it did in the first two months, then they will have a good chance of advancing deep into the Hockey East and NCAA Playoffs. Conversely, if they don't correct some of the problems which cropped up over the last two months, the 2013 postseason will be a disappointment. With that in mind, it's instructive to review how the UNH Wildcats have performed lately in key areas of the game.

Intensity and Effort

In the 6-5 loss to Providence on Jan. 19th, UNH lacked intensity and speed in the early going and gave up the first 4 goals of the game. They were getting beaten in battles for loose pucks and allowing their opponents to gain a stride on them in all three zones. In their next game, UNH squandered a 2-1 lead at Merrimack and lost 3-2. The following night, Merrimack travelled up Interstate 93 for a rematch at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester. Prior to the game, the seniors held a rare, players-only meeting and emphasized the need to play with intensity and speed on every shift. The immediate result was a convincing 6-2 victory over the Warriors.

Having covered the last 4 games - at Northeastern, Merrimack and Providence at the Whittemore Center, and at Providence - I would say that UNH has largely solved the problem of inconsistent effort. Individual players, forward lines, and defensive pairings are not "taking off shifts". They're playing with the level of speed and intensity needed to be competitive in every game. Some individuals, such as Brett Kostolansky, Austin Block, Kevin Goumas, and Dan Correale, consistently play with an extraordinary level of intensity and grit.

Team Defense

Under the tutelage of Associate Coach Jim Tortorella, the historically offensive-minded Wildcats have bought into a system of team defense. During most of the season, UNH has allowed fewer goals per game than most teams in the country. Despite giving up 6 goals to Merrimack and Providence and 5 to BC last month, UNH still has allowed the fewest goals in Hockey East.

Much of the defensive success can be attributed to UNH defensemen and one or two forwards funneling back into the UNH zone to prevent odd-man rushes. Watch the team closely and you'll see players calling out to each other and pointing to opposing players who need to be covered on the back check. This aspect of team defense had fallen off a bit after the holiday break and reportedly was a topic for emphasis in the players-only meeting prior to the second Merrimack game. On Wednesday night in Providence, UNH's back-checking was outstanding despite PC's uptempo game.

There is still room for improvement in one aspect of team defense - coverage below the goal line. Too many scoring plays are initiated by an opposing player controlling the puck directly behind or over the shoulder of goalie Casey DeSmith. At times, either a UNH defenseman or back-checking center aggressively attacks the puck carrier down low and either steals the puck or pins the guy up against the boards. However, this needs to happen more consistently. This is an area in which UNH could become more physically intimidating to opponents. The occasional well-timed rubout into the backboards might send the message that free movement below the goal line will be discouraged.

Penalty Kill

Entering the nationally-televised games against Providence at the Whittemore Center last Sunday, UNH lead all NCAA teams in penalty killing. They had prevented a power play goal a remarkable 92.8% of the time. As CBS analyst Dave Starman pointed out on the broadcast, Coach Tortorella deserves much of the credit for establishing an active, aggressive scheme for the UNH penalty kill. Thanks to his on-air analysis and the assistance of a follower of the blog, I have a much better understanding of how the "diamond" penalty kill is supposed to work. UNH almost always utilizes the diamond set up and it obviously has been very effective.

Early in the 3-3 tie with Providence on Sunday, UNH uncharacteristically gave up two power play goals. These prevented UNH from coming away with a much needed win. For UNH to succeed in the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs, they needed to figure out what went wrong with the diamond coverage and make corrective adjustments.

The diamond penalty kill has two phases. First, when the opposition attempts to carry the puck through the neutral zone, one UNH forward skates in the neutral zone and tries to interfere with the puck carrier. The 2 UNH defenseman and remaining UNH forward line up across the UNH blueline. Their job is to stop or impede the movement of the puck into the zone. The second phase of the diamond set up comes when the puck has entered the UNH zone. A diamond pattern is established with a forward at the top point of the diamond at the top of the slot, one defenseman on the left point of the diamond near the faceoff dot to the left of the UNH goalie, the other defenseman at the bottom of the diamond in the low slot, and the other forward on the right point of the diamond near the right faceoff dot. The diamond penalty kill is designed to aggressively challenge the puck carrier, impede the movement of the puck, and intercept passes.

UNH had four problems executing the diamond strategy in the 3-3 tie against Providence. First, on a few occasions, a PC puck carrier entered the UNH zone along the boards in front of the UNH bench without being stopped. Second, a PC forward positioned near the halfwall to the left of goalie DeSmith was allowed to hold then pass the puck without being effectively challenged by the UNH player on the left corner of the diamond. Third, PC was able to get the puck to a forward below the goal line a few strides to DeSmith's left. That forward assisted on both power play goals. Finally, on one of the goals, a PC forward got behind the UNH forward on the right side of the diamond and shot into a nearly open net.

The main adjustment UNH made on Wednesday night, which translated into an effective use of the diamond penalty kill, was utilizing personel who aggressively challenged PC's movement of the puck along the side boards and down below the goal line. For the diamond strategy to succeed, you need skaters who can quickly accelerate to challenge the opposing puck carrier and to intercept passes. Connor Hardowa and Brett Kostolansky are particularly effective in this role. My guess is that the diamond penalty kill was practiced extensively following the loss to PC last Sunday and will be re-emphasized for the rest of the season.

Goal Scoring

Before the season began, some UNH fans voiced concern over whether the team had enough "goal scorers". For most of the season, UNH has scored a more than adequate amount of goals. Seniors Austin Block (11 goals) and John Henrion (9 goals) have been particularly productive. As of today, UNH trails only Boston College in total goals scored among Hockey East teams. The loss to PC was only the second time UNH has been shut out all season - the other being a 0-0 tie with Northeastern back in October.

On a few occasions this season, the UNH coaches have made major changes in the forward lines in an effort to generate more goal scoring. Following the 4-1 loss to Dartmouth at their holiday tournament, the "energy line" of Dan Correale-Jay Camper-Matt Willows was created. Over the next four games, that line posted 3 goals and 9 assists. After not registering points in the following two losses to Providence (6-5) and Merrimack (3-2), the line was broken up with the move of Correale to the first line with Grayson Downing at center and Austin Block on right wing. The positive results were immediate as the new first line combined for 3 goals and 3 assists in the 6-2 win over Merrimack in Manchester. However, the Correale-Downing-Block line didn't score in UNH's last two loses.

Injuries to two veteran forwards - Greg Burke (shoulder and concussion) and Nick Sorkin (broken bone in hand) - have also been costly and necessitated changes in the forward lines. When healthy, Burke was effective as both a power forward and power center. Sorkin missed 5 games and played with a cast on his hand in several others. He has yet to regain his scoring touch.

Although UNH has not found the back of the net enough in two of the last three games, they are generating many shots on goal (e.g., 52 in the 4-1 loss to Merrimack). In each game, UNH has hit the post at least once and has created quality scoring bids. Even so, it's quite likely the UNH coaches will juggle one or more of the lines prior to the Boston College game in an effort to generate more scoring.

One key player in UNH's scoring attack is the offensively-gifted defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk. Over the first 19 games of the season, TvR teamed with Captain Connor Hardowa on the first defensive unit. Although he's a right-shot, he has played left defense. In the first 17 games, TvR was a leading scorer among Hockey East defensemen posting 6 goals and 9 assists.

Following a lop-sided, 5-1 loss to Boston College on Jan. 11th, defensive stalwart Brett Kostolansky was moved up to the first pairing with Hardowa. Kostolansky has quietly played outstanding defense and he matches up well against the leading scorer on the opposing teams. However, since TvR was moved down to the third defensive pairing, his offensive impact has diminished. He has not scored a goal in 8 games and, except for a 4 assist night in the 6-2 win over Merrimack at the Verizon Wireless Arena, he has posted only 1 assist. TvR is an impact player who is much too talented to be playing in the 5th or 6th defensive slot.

Power Play

UNH currently has the 4th most effective power play in Hockey East. The Wildcats score on 17% of their power plays. In the frustrating 1-0 loss to Providence on Wednesday night, UNH went 0 for 6 on power play opportunities. The PC forwards were particularly effective in skating out and challenging UNH's two defensemen positioned on the points at the blue line.

Earlier in the season, it seemed that UNH was utilizing the umbrella set up more often. In that scheme, the most offensive defenseman is positioned at the middle of the blue line with the other defenseman near the halfwall to the right of the opposing goalie and a play-making forward (e.g., Grayson Downing, Kevin Goumas) at the halfwall to the goalie's left. This may be a more effective strategy than the two-point set up in generating quality shots on goal.


Following the goalie duel between long-time friends Casey DeSmith and Providence's Jon Gillies, PC coach Nate Leaman described DeSmith as an elite goalie. With the exception of a couple of off nights, DeSmith has been the best goalie in Hockey East and one of the best in the nation. With the help of goalie coach Mike Buckley of Goaltending Development Services, DeSmith has made successful adjustments in technique following an off game.

In his junior hockey career in the USHL and his freshman season with UNH, DeSmith earned a reputation for excelling in pressure-packed, playoff games. There's no reason to doubt that he'll come up big again in the remaining games of the 2012-13 season.


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