After years of explosive offensive firepower and defensive stinginess, New Hampshire had to rely primarily on the latter last season. The Wildcats totaled only a modest 122 overall goals, a far cry from their 204 in 1996-97 or even the 171 the year before last.
This finally caught up with them when they finished 4-5-1 down the stretch, with their only postseason wins coming in the Hockey East quarterfinals. For many teams that would have been a successful season, but it was a letdown for UNH fans after two consecutive trips to the Frozen Four.
“Last year didn’t go bad, qualifying for the NCAA tournament,” says coach Dick Umile. “I thought that three quarters of the season we played pretty well defensively, but we struggled scoring goals. That was our handicap, but our team overall played pretty good defense, led by Ty.”
Ty, of course, is goaltender Ty Conklin, who will again be “The Man” in the UNH crease. Conklin ceded only 123 minutes to backup Matt Carney, a factor which may have eventually caught up to Conklin later in the season. Over the first half, he was spectacular, carrying the team on his back and earning serious consideration for the Hobey Baker Award. His consistency fell off in the second half, however, and with UNH goal scoring in short supply, the drive to another national championship game stalled.
“Ty is going to play the majority of the games this year, but we’d like to try to give him a little more of a breather during the season, at least during the middle of the season and maybe down the stretch,” says Umile. “There’s no question that he’s our go-to goalie, but we’ve got competition with Matt Carney and a freshman, Michael Ayers. We’re hoping that Ty will get more of a break than he did last year, but we feel real good with our goaltending.”
— UNH coach Dick Umile
On defense, UNH returns all but Dan Enders. Seniors Mark White, Sean Austin and Eric Lind combine with sophomore Garrett Stafford to form the nucleus. Sophomore Kevin Truelson also saw considerable action last year and will be joined by Tyler Scott and incoming freshmen Mick Mounsey, Tim Horst and Mike Lubesnick. Of the four newcomers, Mounsey — sure to be a fan favorite as a New Hampshire native — and Horst appear to have the inside track to a place in the rotation.
“We feel good about the defensive aspect of our game with five of the six [defensemen from last year] returning,” says Umile. “We also have a very, very good group of freshmen defensemen coming in, so it will really be a battle for someone to get into that lineup and maybe even challenge some of the players who played last year.”
Although the group played solid defense as a whole last year, it did lack the quarterbacking capability of a Jayme Filipowicz, both even strength and on the power play. This contributed to the team’s offensive woes. The UNH man advantage dropped to a lowly 13 percent conversion rate, at least in part because of the play at the points. With another year under his belt, Stafford may be ready to elevate that dimension of his game.
Umile, however, is none too anxious to have his defensive corps start thinking too much about offense.
“We’re basically going to keep playing solid defense and keep the number of scoring opportunities down,” he says. “If we do that, with Ty Conklin, we’ve got a good shot at being in the game.”
The biggest concern lies at forward, where UNH had its problems even prior to losing Mike Souza, John Sadowski and Jason Shipulski to graduation.
Darren Haydar (22-19–41) will once again be one of the most dynamic players in the game, but he could be susceptible to shadowing if other forwards don’t fill the shoes — and then some — of the old “S” line.
Injuries could be a factor. Patrick Foley, a power forward who Umile calls “a heart and soul kid,” underwent reconstructive surgery on both knees and won’t resume skating until the end of November. David Busch has still not fully recovered from the severely broken ankle he suffered late last season, requiring the insertion of a pin.
Additionally, Corey-Joe Ficek had his appendix removed just two weeks prior to the start of the season. Although the prognosis was for a quick return because of the modestly-invasive procedure used, it still raised a question about the only returning double-digit goal-scorer other than Haydar.
“Obviously, Darren Haydar is our big goal-scorer,” says Umile. “We think we have a couple of seniors who can add to the scoring with Ficek and Matt Swain. They’re going to be important players.
“And we’re only going to have Jeff Haydar for a year — [because that's all the eligibility he has left] — but he’s going to be a solid centerman for our team. He’ll do much like what John Sadowski did for our team the last couple of years: play real strong in the defensive zone, playmake and put the puck in the net.”
Three freshmen could contribute right away. Travis Banga and Nathan Martz were linemates in the British Columbia Hockey League and could be the latest big-time scorers UNH has recruited from that source. Speed merchant Steve Saviano comes from closer to Durham — Reading, Mass. — but could also make a big splash.
“All three have looked good in the early going, but it remains to be seen what they can do at this level,” says Umile. “But judging by past history, they’re going to be great players in Hockey East.”
The group that is likely to make or break UNH’s offense, though, isn’t the seniors or the freshmen. It’s the sophomores, led by Lanny Gare, but also including Jim Abbott, Colin Hemingway and Josh Prudden.
“As quickly as they come out and score goals will determine how much we can improve in that area,” says Umile. “That sophomore class is going to be an important class for us in terms of goal production.”
And if the best laid plans for a higher-octane offense don’t materialize?
“You can still win games, 2-1 and 3-2,” says Umile. “We did that the majority of last year with us not scoring a lot of goals. So it won’t be the end of the world if we don’t score a lot.
“But I do believe that’s an area we need to improve in, especially in the specialty situations. There’s no question in my mind that with last year’s freshmen stepping up and this year’s freshmen contributing that we are going to improve in that area.”