Saturday, April 06, 2013

UNHHockey Notes: NCAA Northeast Regional and Costly Concussions

UNH's Grayson Downing Suffers Concussion
Against Denver in NCAA Tourney

The History
On the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, the UNH Wildcats visited Magness Arena on the campus of the University of Denver. At the time, Denver was ranked #2 in the nation and UNH was #3. The arena was nearly full with 5500, mostly Pioneer, fans in attendance. DU blitzed UNH goalie Casey DeSmith scoring three goals in the first 9 minutes. Jeff Wyer replaced him in goal.

Less than 4 minutes into the second period, sophomore center Grayson Downing scored a short-handed goal with the primary assist going to junior Kevin Goumas. Minutes later, Downing struck again assisted by Goumas. Denver managed one more goal and entered the third period leading 4-2. Then, the UNH floodgates opened. On the first shift, Downing scored his third goal of the game - a natural hat trick. Midway through the final period, Goumas scored two goals separated by only 3 minutes. Goumas completed his natural hat trick with an empty netter.

UNH had scored four unanswered goals and embarassed DU on their home ice 6-4. Downing and Goumas earned the top 2 Stars of the Game. UNH rose to #2 in the nation and by December 3rd, they were #1. Denver fell to #5.

Opening Round of NCAA Northeast Regional
One week ago, the University of Denver had an opportunity to make amends for the early season collapse as it faced UNH in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. A victory over the Wildcats before a national audience would have made the loss on Thanksgiving weekend seem like a minor glitch in an otherwise successful season.

Following the firing of DU Head Coach George Gwozdecky a few days ago, we now know the tournament game against UNH had far more meaning than most realized. In a news conference the day after he was fired, the DU coach for the last 19 seasons said:
"There had been discussions and talks about my contract, beginning four years ago. Those contract discussions were put on hold a couple of years ago. I expected that they would resume — and they didn't."
Clearly, Gwozdecky had hoped that beating UNH and eventually making a run in the Frozen Four would lead to negotiation of a long-term contract at DU.

To defeat UNH, DU knew that it had to contain the two guys who scored hat tricks against them four months earlier. The play of Grayson Downing and Kevin Goumas on that November night in Denver turned out to be emblematic of their 2012-13 season. Goumas finished the season as UNH's leading scorer with 10 goals and 32 assists. In most games, Goumas played on UNH's first power play unit and he scored 2 power play goals. He and Downing also were a primary pair on one of the nation's best penalty kills.

Downing, the first-line center for UNH, tied for the team's lead in goal scoring with 15. His 31 points were the third most on the team. Downing scored 3 shorthanded goals which was the second highest in all of Division I hockey. He also posted 3 power play goals. Considering that Goumas and Downing logged more minutes than most of their teammates, it's remarkable that their +/- rating was +18 and +14, respectively - the two best on the UNH squad.

In the opening round matchup against Denver, Downing centered the first line with freshman Dan Correale on left wing and senior Austin Block on right wing. Goumas centered the second line with fellow junior Dalton Speelman on left wing and sophomore Matt Willows on right. Twice, UNH overcame a one-goal deficit and decisively beat Denver 5-2 (see "UNH Defeats Denver 5-2"). It was UNH's fourth consecutive opening-round victory in the NCAA tournament dating back to the thrilling overtime win over North Dakota in March 2009. But, the outcome was bittersweet as Downing and Goumas were knocked out of the tournament with concussions.

I've watched a DVR replay of the UNH-Denver game and have concluded that while the hits by Denver players which lead to the concussions probably were not part of some pre-game strategy, they were clearly intentional. The DU hit that lead to Downing's concussion was missed by the referees, the ESPN announcers and most fans at home and in the Verizon Wireless Arena. The hit to Goumas' head, though not seen by either referee, was captured on replay for all to see.

Grayson Downing's Concussion
The DU hit that lead to Downing's concussion occurred at the 11:55 mark of the second period. Goumas got knocked out at 19:15 in the third period. Knowing that Downing and Goumas would eventually leave the game with concussions, I first focused on their play prior to the injuries. It's obvious from watching the video that both players were consistently finding open ice to skate in or carry the puck. They were especially effective in eluding opposing players in the neutral zone and in the Denver zone. In the news conference after the game, Coach Umile said that he didn't think Denver was "targeting" Downing or Goumas. That's certainly true in the sense that DU players were not taking runs at them with elbows and/or sticks up during the first period and a half.

At the 16:09 mark of the second period, Casey Thrush drew an interference penalty. Coach Umile sent out the Goumas-Downing-Block-Knodel-vanRiemsdyk powerplay unit. Downing won a faceoff and fired a shot at DU goalie Juho Olkinuora. As Olkinuora was making the save, DU defenseman Josiah Didier pushed Downing in the back knocking him over. Didier then held Downing in a headlock. The puck dribbled into the DU net but after the whistle had blown.

After the ensuing faceoff, won by Austin Block, Downing gathered the puck at the halfwall to the right of the DU goalie. Downing made a nifty spin move while carrying the puck but DU forward Matt Tabrum gave him a two-handed push to the top of the back and Downing fell face first into the boards. Then, Downing passed to Goumas who fired a close-in shot at Olkinuora. UNH had not tied the game up but they were pressing.

With 11:50 left in the second period, the play that lead to Grayson Downing's concussion began as he rushed through center ice with the puck (see video above). Downing crossed the blueline and, at the top of the faceoff circles, skated right between two opposing players. That's when DU defenseman Paul Phillips used his left elbow and forearm to knock Downing in the face (shield). The contact was similar to a clothes-line hit because it knocked Downing backwards and his right skate went flying out from underneath him. Downing managed to keep his left skate on the ice for an instant, spun awkwardly and fell chin first onto the ice. Downing's head snapped backward as his chin hit the ice.

Immediately after the hit, Grayson Downing got up cautiously, coasted toward the net, and tried to knock Phillips with his right glove. Downing then left the ice while bent over at the waist. When Downing got to the bench, he was tended to by the UNH trainer for a cut underneath his chin. Shortly after, John Henrion was called for boarding and Downing missed the penalty kill. Kevin Goumas did fire a shot wide of the DU goal as UNH killed off the penalty.

Five minutes after Downing hit his head on the ice and went to the bench, UNH went on the powerplay. Remarkably, Downing went back into the game with the first powerplay unit. Downing made one impressive spin move in the slot then snapped a wrist shot from the doorstep of the crease. Seconds later, TvR flicked a wrist shot from the top of the slot that beat Olkinuora. Score tied 2-2 and UNH was gaining the momentum.

With a little more than 2 minutes left in the second period, Casey Thrush rushed into the DU zone and drew a tripping penalty. Downing returned to the ice on the power play but was not skating at full speed. Just as the power play expired, Dalton Speelman knocked in a rebound off a Brett Kostolansky, 3/4 slap shot from the high slot. UNH had taken the lead 3-2.

So, Downing managed to skate two shifts after he was elbowed in the face by Phillips and hit his chin/head on the ice. However, Downing did not play for the entire third period and sat on the back bench behind backup goalie Jeff Wyer. Oddly, the ESPN announcers did not notice that Downing was out of the lineup and did not mention his name for the remainder of the Denver game.

UNH's Kevin Goumas: Down and Out

Kevin Goumas' Concussion
I wonder what Coach Gwozdecky said to his DU players in the locker room after the second period. Memories of the UNH comeback at Thanksgiving time must have been in some players' minds. On this night, DU had relinquished the lead twice and UNH had seized the momentum outshooting DU 16-7 in the second period. UNH was ahead 3-2 going into the final period. Did Gwozdecky believe or suspect that the outcome of the third period would determine his future at Denver? We'll never know.

With Grayson Downing unable to play because of a concussion, UNH sent out Kevin Goumas and his linemates Speelman and Henrion to begin the third period. For the next 45 seconds, Goumas skated freely throughout the zones. At the 19:17 mark, Speelman attempted to steal the puck from DU defender Scott Mayfield near the DU blueline. Mayfield flipped the puck back toward the redline. Goumas, who was skating near the exact center of the rink at the redline, reached with his left hand and caught the puck. Just as Goumas was about to drop the puck in front of him, DU center Nick Shore lowered his left shoulder slightly and hit Goumas squarely on the right side of his chin. Goumas was blind-sided by Shore.

Kevin Goumas Knocked Out
of NCAA Tournament (Photo: Mike Lowry)
The CCHA referee closest to Shore when he leveled Goumas was not looking directly at them and apparently did not see what caused Goumas to crumble face down on the ice. The other CCHA referee apparently did not see the hit either. Play continued for an additional 7 seconds before the linesmen and referees realized that Goumas was not getting up. Apparently, one of the linesmen had seen Shore's hit on Goumas because the referees reviewed the play on the video monitor at the scorers' table. Shore was penalized with a 5-minute major, contact to the head penalty and ejected from the game with an additional 10-minute game misconduct. Given that Shore had to go out of his way to lower his shoulder into the side of Goumas' head, a game disqualification for an attempt to injure - which would have kept Shore out of the following game - could have been justified.

During the resulting 5-minute power play, UNH was without it's two key forwards. In the absence of Downing and Goumas, UNH only managed 2 shots on goal for the entire power play. It would be a harbinger of what was to follow the following night against UMass-Lowell.

With it's top two centers out for the final 19 minutes of the third period, UNH was forced to juggle the lines on the fly. Nick Sorkin switched from left wing on the fourth line to playing center. Sorkin, Jeff Silengo and Scott Pavelski were the three centers left in the UNH lineup. UNH scored an insurance 4th goal with a make-shift forward line of Sorkin, freshman Maxim Gaudreault and John Henrion along with defenseman Justin Agosta jumping into the scoring play. Casey Thrush added an empty net goal with 2:20 left in the game.

UNH advanced to the Northeast Regional finals to face UMass-Lowell, one of the hottest teams in the country. The 2012-13 season was over for the Denver Pioneers. Long-time Head Coach George Gwozdecky, who had lead DU to two National Championships, had coached his last game for the Pioneers.

"Without Offensive Core, UNH Bows to Lowell"
My summary of the loss to UMass-Lowell can be seen by clicking the title link above. In the news conference following the 0-2 loss to Lowell, Coach Umile was asked how the team responded to the absence of Grayson Downing and Kevin Goumas. Umile said:
"I thought they did a terrific job. Obviously, it affects a lot of things, face-offs, power plays, shots...They’re two pretty talented players and they’re a big part of our offense. But, that being said, I thought the guys that stepped in tonight and the combinations that we used, the guys did a pretty good job with it. You know , we could have used them on the power play. We only had one power play look but, it changes things...but you know what, it's a team and other guys stepped up, it happened in the past and I thought the guys had a great effort tonight and gave us an opportunity to win."
Against Lowell, UNH managed 28 shots on goal including three over the final couple minutes with an extra UNH attacker. During its only power play, UNH registered just 1 SOG. It was the second time all season UNH had been shutout in a losing effort. The last time had been a 0-1 loss to goalie Jon Gillies and Providence back on Feb. 13th.

Of course, we'll never know whether UNH would have beaten Lowell and advanced to the Frozen Four had Downing and Goumas been in the lineup. Lowell's neutral zone trap and outstanding goaltending from freshman Connor Hellebuyck make the Riverhawks a formidable opponent. However, it would be naive to contend that UNH's chances of winning would not have improved with Downing and Goumas taking their regular shifts.

In the four games prior to the Denver game, Kevin Goumas posted 5 assists and became one of the few Wildcats in recent history to post 40 or more points. In the five games leading up to the NCAA's, Grayson Downing scored 3 goals and 2 assists. Goumas played in all 38 games for UNH this season and had scored at least 1 point in all but 12 of them. Downing also played in every game and scored in all but 17. Their speed, quickness, and play-making abilities were vital elements of UNH's success this season and will be again next year.


Blogger HealthTchr said...

Excellent analysis of the unfortunate loss of Goumas and Downing and you are right...who knows what might have been....

Apr 6, 2013, 9:32:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Web Site Hit Counter

Firefox 2